Disappointment and Hope

Disappointment and Hope

By Gail Johnson Vaughan, Director Emerita / Chief Permanency Officer, Families NOW

After passing out of Assembly Human Services and Judiciary Committees with no ‘nay’ votes and no opposition AB 1879 failed to pass out of the Assembly Appropriations Suspense File. That means we will have to wait until next year to move the concept forward. As a reminder, the legislation defined child-centered specialized services* and required the court to order them for any child no longer receiving reunification services with the exception of children living with relatives or already in guardianship or living with a family approved to adopt them.

The job of the Appropriations Committee is to analyze the cost of the bill and, for bills with a price tag over $150,000 place it in the Suspense File while deliberations are held to determine which, if any pass out of Suspense and on to the Assembly Floor. We knew Appropriations would be our most challenging committee but we felt that we had provided strong documentation that the bill created no new costs but merely directed the counties to create an individualized permanency case plan using proven effective service elements already required by statute or regulation or included in Continuum of Care (CCR) Core Services Payment System.

The bill was analyzed by the committee’s consultant known for her thorough and thoughtful work. When we met with her in March she seemed to understand the key points that we shared with her. But of course the consultant does not just rely on the word of the bill sponsor. The consultant’s other sources provided data that did not sync with our understanding.

The committee analysis said child-centered permanency services would be required for 38,000 children. This is a number I am familiar with. It represents 100% of the California children in foster care who no longer receive reunification services, including children already in legal guardianships and placed with fit and willing relatives or families approved to adopt them. When we met with the CDSS legislative office they explained that they had not had time to fully analyze the bill given that they had 100 bills to review. Likewise, the Permanency Policy Branch has been operating under an extremely taxing workload this year.

Although we reached out to meet with CDSS staff as soon as we read the analysis they were not able to schedule a meeting with us until one week before the final Appropriations Committee hearing. CDSS staff explained that they thought that the bill language “unless placed with a fit and willing relative” meant unless the child had a permanency plan goal for placement with a fit and willing relative. I’m not sure why that understanding drove up the number of children to be served since those with a permanency plan goal for placement with a fit and willing relative is larger than those currently in relative placements. But it made sense to them and somehow made sense that the bill would require court orders for child-centered specialized permanency services for children who had achieved their permanency goal and were already living with their permanent family. Part of our disappointment lies in the wish that clarification on those issues had been requested in time to make a difference.

The committee consultant also reported that the bill would likely cost in the $20 million range (GF*) to arrange and provide additional services, tens of millions of dollars (Fed/GF), to provide the counseling, therapeutic, mental health and other medical type services, and additional costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (GF*) for county probation departments to provide additional services to youth under their jurisdiction. That’s well over $30 million of costs attributed to the bill in spite of the fact that the elements included in child-centered specialized permanency services are already required by statute and regulation (take for example medically-necessary entitlement mental health services) or are included in the CCR Core Services for which AB 403 required CDSS to develop a new payment system. From our perspective the bill adds no new costs and in fact creates significant governmental savings as children move from expensive foster care placements into subsidized legally permanent families.

We are grateful for the meaningful discussions we had with CDSS legal office during the days immediately preceding the final hearing. We agreed to amendments if the bill passed out of Suspense. Amendments like changing the “not currently placed with a fit and willing relative” to “not currently placed with a fit and willing relative, or with a relative as defined in Section 11391(c), or in legal guardianship, or in the home of a family approved to adopt the child.

They expressed a strong preference that the bill language be changed from the court being required to order the services to the services being required to be included in the applicable child’s permanency plan. I best understand this as assuring that social work will be done by case workers not by judicial officers. This makes sense to me if we can get the language right.

Probably the amendment request that really bothers me is a deletion of the last sentence of the definition of child-centered specialized permanency services. These services include services designed to prepare the permanent family to meet the child’s needs, set appropriate expectations for before and after permanency, and stabilize the placement. That one hurts. How can it be that we do not already require that the identified permanent family be prepared to meet the child’s needs an receive services to stabilize the placement? The trail of tears of the children who experience the disruption of an adoptive or guardianship placement is preventable at such a low cost. And the cost of bringing the child back into foster care more traumatized than before they achieved permanency makes me wonder how it is more cost effective not to prepare the family and support the stabilization of the placement.

So where is the hope I alluded to in my title “Disappointment and Hope?” Our efforts on AB 1879 has changed the permanency conversation in California. It has highlighted critical questions. If we know how to find families for these children who wait, why don’t we? Why are we not considering the cost of not providing these services? Why, if the Welfare and Institutions Code already requires counties to “take any steps necessary to finalize a permanent placement for the child” does defining the elements documented to be effective to finalize a permanent placement for the child constitute a new mandate?

I have hope because we will start the next legislative session a stronger bill, with more input from CDSS, experts in the field, and our already committed advocacy partners. I have hope because two of the four bullet points articulating the vision of CCR relate to all children living in a safe and committed permanent family. I have hope because the leadership of CDSS knows the importance of child-centered specialized permanency services to the success of CCR and members of boards of supervisors across the state are becoming engaged in the importance of these services for the children in their jurisdiction.

Yesterday I picked up our local rural newspaper and read these words from 24-year old Alexander Rossi: “Take now shortcuts, work harder than your competitors, make sacrifices, build necessary relationships and lastly learn how to lose. No one needs to learn how to win, that’s the easy part; but losing at times is your best teacher and motivator.” It sounds like he is describing Families NOW. We have learned a lot on this journey and have more than hope that we can bring this legislative concept over the finish line.