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A foolish foster care shuffle

There are two ways to deal with a wrongheaded federal interpretation of a law meant to help abused and neglected children. Here’s one: Remove 16,000 California children from the homes of close relatives and put them in group homes or with foster families, where by most accounts youths suffer more psychological trauma, perform more poorly in school and get into more trouble with the law. Keep them there six months or so. Then apply for funding that Congress made available last year to encourage states to keep foster youths with relatives, and pay to move the kids back where they were. Then hope they have no lingering ill effects from the wrenching, and foolish, bureaucratic shuffle.

California is being punished for leading the nation in child welfare policy. Nine years ago, policymakers here saw the wisdom in keeping children with family members instead of sending them to live with strangers when their parents ran into trouble and could no longer properly care for them. Grandparents and other family members who wanted to take the children in -- but were retired or otherwise lacked the money to pay for school clothes, pediatrician bills and meals -- got some of the money that otherwise would have gone to foster parents. Last year, Congress passed a law that wisely directs federal foster care funding to “kinship care” programs like California’s, and keeps it coming through age 21 so the children have the support they need to transition to work, college or both. But a division of the Department of Health and Human Services -- the Administration for Children and Families -- interpreted Congress’ action to mean that only new applications for kinship care are eligible.

Lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration are struggling to find the money to keep paying the state’s part. But even if they do, California stands to lose $70 million in federal funding to keep children with their families, and will get it back only if they oust the kids. Some advocates suggest shuffling paperwork to officially, but not physically, remove children from their homes and then move them back. But even that sleight of hand would be a ridiculous waste of scarce resources. Why spend money on paperwork instead of children?

That brings us to the second way to deal with the interpretation of the federal law: Change the interpretation. Congress certainly did not intend to penalize states for innovation and leadership or to shuttle children back and forth between homes; quite the opposite. The solution is simple and obvious, and well within the Obama administration’s ability.

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