Zachary Martin’s story of growing up in the Texas foster care system is awful.
It’s also virtually textbook for foster systems everywhere, including California.
Taken from his family at the age of 3, he and his two brothers bounced through a variety of homes and “residential treatment facilities” (basically holding tanks for kids without adoption prospects and who are too difficult for foster families) then more homes and centers until he aged out of the system.
Along the way, he lost track of one brother and the other was sent back to Texas where he’s young enough to still qualify for help in that state.
Martin came to Bakersfield looking for his mother, but she has troubles of her own.
So now, at 20, he’s living in a homeless shelter with no services, no family support, no job experience and a lifetime of harsh memories.
Martin’s story played out in Texas but the system is the same here.
“You can see how crazy it can be,” said Tom Corson, executive director of the Kern County Network for Children, which has a coffee shop run by former foster kids and where Martin eventually drifted in.
The network is trying to find help for Martin, “But in his case, there are so many gaps.”
A new law that took effect this year in California hopes to close those gaps by emphasizing services and permanence for kids like Martin.
The idea behind the new law is simple.
Children shouldn’t have to change placements to get services, the services should be brought to them in stable, family homes.
Bouncing kids through homes adds more trauma on top of whatever trauma they’ve already suffered, a 2015 Department of Social Services report found.
“It’s (a) good thing,” Corson said of the new law. “It really focuses on mental health help. It’s upping the bar.”
There are 32 group homes in Kern County and the local Department of Human Services uses 18 of those, according to Antanette Reed, assistant director of Kern County Child Protective Services.
We have 63 local kids in group homes, five of those in homes out of county.
Typically, a child will be placed in a group home if he or she has severe behavioral or medical issues, Reed said.
“We have a very low number of kids in group homes here,” Reed said.
That’s going to be good for Kern because the new law will phase out group homes over the next few years.
Some will still exist but will have to transition to short-term care centers focusing on intensive treatment with the goal of getting the kid stable enough to be placed in a family home, Reed said.
The idea is not to keep a child more than 90 days in one of these short-term residential treatment centers (STRTC).
“There are a lot of requirements for our group homes to get up to speed,” Reed said. “It’s quite a process. They will have to staff up and get mental health certifications, medical certifications, have plans to work with family members and the foster home. And it’s all based on the individual child’s needs.”
She predicted a handful of Kern’s 32 existing homes would be able to transition to the new STRTC way of doing business.
Meanwhile, rules are changing for foster families (now to be called “resource families”) as well.
Once a foster parent goes through the approval process, he or she will automatically be approved as a potential adoptive parent as well. Those used to be two different processes.
And relatives of children in the system will have to get foster approval now, too.
That may seem more cumbersome, but it gives relatives equal footing with potential adoptive parents.
“It’s all about stability for the kid,” Reed explained. “So this way, a relative wouldn’t be facing a situation where ‘You’re an adoptive home and I’m not.’ It creates a level playing field for everyone in the system.”
By the way, relatives will still be able to take the child right away, but won’t get paid until they are approved as fosters.
Speaking of money, the rate foster parents are paid will also be changing.
Right now it’s $889 per month, per child.
That will change to increased amounts for children with greater needs. There will be four levels, with level four being the highest needs.
But all that hasn’t been sorted out yet, Reed said.
Fosters will get training to address those needs, she said.
This is critical as group homes are phased out and the STRTCs will only be able to keep kids until they’re stabilized.
More intensive services, training and higher pay all cost more money.
Reed said that, yes, the changes would cost more up front.
It’s anticipated the STRTC homes will cost $12,036 per month per child compared to group homes that cost between $5,513 and $10,410 per child per month.
But children won’t stay long-term in the STRTCs and the foster-to-adopt process will be streamlined, leading, hopefully, to more kids in permanent homes, Reed anticipated.
So, how many foster homes are there in Kern compared to the need?
Not including relatives, there are 245 foster homes right now compared to 1,766 kids in the system.
Hmmm. Seems like we have some work to do there.