Buffeted by reports of troubles in California's child welfare system, state lawmakers are considering an $81-million plan to improve oversight and care for abused, abandoned and delinquent children.
Among the areas targeted for attention is the over-medication of some of the 15,000 children housed in the state's network of group homes. A state task force has also proposed an increase in funding for more frequent social worker visits to ensure that children are receiving proper care.
Pat Leary, a consultant to the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, said added oversight is needed to make sure a youngster's most basic needs are not overlooked while he or she is under the state's care.
"A child can be out there with virtually no clothes, one pair of pants and shoes, have no food on the shelves, and nobody is going to know that except the children, who are being victimized a second time," Leary said.
The attention follows recent articles in The Times and other newspapers pointing out problems in the state's child welfare system, including inadequate care and inappropriate mixing of children from different age levels in group homes.
A Times investigation found that in many group homes food is scarce, the surroundings are filthy, schooling is poor and the surrogate parents are $7-an-hour employees who often quit after a month or two.
In addition, some children in group homes are receiving a dangerous mix of drugs to control hyperactivity and other behavioral problems, prompting concerns from experts, The Times found.
Legislators are considering the additional funding as they push toward the July 1 deadline for approving a state budget. After years of belt-tightening, the state is enjoying economic prosperity and a $4.4-billion budget surplus.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has suggested $50 million in extra money as a starting point, while Democrats in the Legislature want $81 million to ensure better care at group homes and an additional $40 million for improvements in social services offered to troubled families.
"We intend to work with the Legislature and other interested parties to reach agreement on reforms," said H.D. Palmer, a state finance department spokesman. "In terms of monitoring and oversight, there's consensus that the current regime needs to be strengthened."
State Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) convened a hearing in April and later formed a task force of industry experts. Last month, the task force released dozens of recommendations that have been embraced by Democrats during the budget debate.
"People who work in this area have known about these problems," Leary said. "What's different this year is we finally have some money to go in and make changes instead of just cutting back like we did during the recession years."
Democratic legislators want to see $14 million extra go to hire additional social workers, ensuring that each child is visited at least once a month. State law requires monthly visits, but social workers often fail to meet that standard because of staffing shortages, state officials say.
Under the Democrats' plan, $15 million would be used to expand alternative facilities that offer daytime treatment for children, while $12.3 million would be used for temporary emergency shelter for children from troubled families. An additional $500,000 would pay for a fraud unit to check that group home operators aren't misusing funds.
Democrats also have proposed using $2 million to monitor problems in the use of drugs. There also is legislation in the works that would require the state Department of Mental Health to develop a medical protocol to guide doctors who administer psychiatric drugs at group homes. In many cases, the doctors are pediatricians who lack experience with such medications, experts say.
An additional $2 million in the Democratic plan would be used to monitor private schools that get tax funds to teach disturbed children, many of them from foster or group homes.
A Times story last month detailed how the schools operate with little oversight. In some cases, operators have opened these so-called nonpublic schools despite previous sanctions for child abuse, fraud and gross overbilling.