The job is not done when foster care ends

Dr. William C. Bell testifies before the California Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care.


Madam Chair and Members of the Select Committee, thank you for inviting me today to share Casey Family Programs’ perspective on issues of transition and emancipation for youth in foster care nationally and in the State of California.

I am William C. Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs, a national operating foundation with a 40-year history of serving the needs of children in foster care. Through our offices in Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento, we have provided services to foster youth in California for more than 25 years. We have focused much of our efforts in the last 10 years on permanency and transition, with an emphasis on education and employment.

I want to commend the Select Committee and the State of California for their focus and commitment to improving the lives of children in foster care. As a former Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, I understand the breadth and scope of the child welfare challenges before you here in California.

With about 83,000 children in foster care in this state — about 16 percent of all U.S. foster children — you are taking what I consider to be necessary aggressive, focused and practical action to reduce the number of children coming into the system and improve the lives of those currently in state care. That’s progress, which comes only through committed leadership and collaboration. Under the direction of Assembly member Karen Bass, the Select Committee has brought bi-partisan and broad-based community support, together with the voices of youth and families, to create a proposed legislative package designed to improve the lives of California’s most vulnerable children.

Like the Select Committee, Casey Family Programs is fueled by a collective discontent regarding the current level of investment we make in our child welfare system, with the number of children coming into care, and with the outcomes we’re seeing for these children.

We are troubled by what the data tell us:
•The number of children who are victims of abuse and neglect, while decreasing slightly, number nearly 1 million every year.
•Children of color continue to be over-represented in the California and national child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
•Youth aging out of foster care continue to struggle to build productive, successful adult lives.
•The ratio of children to caseworker continues to be too high in most jurisdictions across the country.

So action is essential. Because if nothing changes, the outcomes for our most vulnerable children only worsen.

Consider the next 15 years — to the year 2020. If nothing changes in the U.S. child welfare system, nearly 14 million confirmed cases of abuse and neglect will be reported; more than 22,500 children will die of abuse and neglect; nine million children will be placed in foster care; and more than 300,000 children will age out of foster care without adequate supports to successfully transition to adulthood. Of those 300,000 transitioning youth, 75,000 will experience homelessness and 54,000 will become involved in the criminal justice system.

And for every young adult incarcerated, they do so at a cost of approximately $22,650 a year. That means for every former foster youth who is incarcerated — with an average prison sentence of about four-and-a-half years — our state governments will spend about $102,000 in an effort to rehabilitate a life we could have positively influenced for so much less.

The bottom line is this: advocating for and supporting change for our most vulnerable children is the right thing to do and ultimately costs us so much less. Think of the value and contribution of those lives — as opposed to their cost — when they are given a path to success.

Every year in our country, more than 20,000 youth in foster care turn 18 and leave the system, often with little or no financial and family support. In California, that number is 4,000. The starting point they need is permanence — or, in simpler terms, lifelong connections with caring adults, who can help them transition to the workforce or higher education. Who among us was prepared for adulthood at 18 without the support of family and community?

We must create a comprehensive developmental approach to preparing youth for successful adulthood, and that starts with permanence.

Without it, we know what happens. In 2005, Casey Family Programs published its Northwest Alumni Study, which examined outcomes for 659 former foster youth, ages 20 to 33, who had been placed in care between 1988 and 1998.

While the study documented many success stories, other results we saw were disturbing, particularly when examining issues regarding how foster youth transition to adulthood. The study showed that foster care alumni — in far greater proportion than the general population — suffered serious mental health issues, were far less likely to pursue and attain a college degree, and experienced difficult employment and financial situations that often led to unemployment, homelessness, and a lack of health insurance and medical benefits.

Taken individually, any one of these areas — mental health, education or employment — could knock a young adult off a path toward building a successful life. But when taken together, they present a nearly impossible set of obstacles for many foster youth.

In truth, when we fail to put in place comprehensive policies rooted in permanency and reinforced by adequate funding, training and essential relational and physical supports for children and youth in care, we are, to a very practical degree, failing them, and failing the communities in which they begin their independent adult lives.

But I’m not here today to talk about failing. I’m here to talk about a comprehensive approach to foster youth transition and the shared focus Casey Family Programs has with the Select Committee on creating near-term policy solutions that will have long-term, positive impacts in helping foster youth build successful adult lives. We commend Chairperson Bass and the Select Committee on the proposed legislative package for its intended effort to bring about a holistic and comprehensive solution to some of the most basic needs of youth in foster care in California.

While additional best practices will need to be considered and implemented going forward, this initial proposed package is an excellent first step to remedying the current patchwork of solutions in California by bringing about broader and more permanent improvements for youth in care.

Consistent with our Northwest Alumni Study findings and recommendations, the Select Committee’s proposed legislative package aims at the heart of what our transitioning foster youth need most — services and opportunities which support them in ensuring they have lifelong, permanent connections and can secure good housing, employment, health care, and education.

More specifically, the Select Committee’s proposed legislation connects with recommendations from Casey’s Northwest Alumni Study on the following points:
•Creating better support and funding for allowing foster youth to remain with family placements beyond the age of 18, which encourages the development of lifelong relationships with foster parents and other supportive adults, and gives these youth longer-term housing solutions during difficult times, or times when they are completing high school GED programs, and vocational or college coursework.
•Supporting programs, such as Guardian and Renaissance Scholars, which combine financial aid, housing and a variety of services and supports to ensure post-secondary education success.
•Improving access for foster youth to transitional and affordable housing, specifically for those experiencing homelessness.
•Creating employer incentives and partnerships for identifying and hiring foster care alumni in jobs that provide steady income and adequate health care benefits.
•Extending health care benefits and other program funding and supports to transitioning foster youth through the age of 24.

So I’d like to spend our time this afternoon looking forward, imagining the positive outcomes we can create together for our most vulnerable children, both here in California and across our nation. I’d like to follow-up with more detail on these key areas related to the Select Committee’s proposed reform package:

One path we know, without question, that can transform a young life is education. We know that many foster youth struggle mightily to finish high school, much less move on to vocational schooling or college-level degrees. One of my greatest concerns is that, if nothing changes in the next 15 years, current data tell us that only 9,000 of those 300,000 young people who will age out of foster care by the year 2020 can expect to earn a college degree.

A strong majority — 70 percent — of teens in the foster care system have a desire to attend college. A recent study of 1,500 foster care youth in Casey Family Programs showed that nearly half attended some college, demonstrating that these youth will take advantage of opportunities for education when provided. But the reality is, as indicated through our Northwest Alumni Study, very few (3 percent) complete either vocational training or a college degree.

Now imagine those 291,000 lives when they’ve earned a high school diploma and had a reasonable opportunity to earn either a vocational or college degree.

In California, you are leading the way toward that reality. The Stuart Foundation, long a leader in child welfare innovation, collaborated with the Orangewood Foundation, universities and other philanthropists to start and replicate Guardian Scholars, a model program which provides former foster youth with a comprehensive package of educational services and supports. Now you have included this model in your education bill, with the intent to spread this innovation and partnership across California and the country.

Youth aging out of foster care are often underemployed with low-incomes. New strategies supporting employment of transitioning youth combine traditional employment and training programs with necessary support services, such as counseling, peer support, child care, and transportation assistance.

Youth in care with minimal or no job experience may benefit from collaborations that blend social services with workforce development. We can and should do a better job of connecting foster care youth to these programs, and we need to start in the early teen years, so young people have developmentally appropriate opportunities to systematically develop a strong work ethic and skills. The more preparation and training young people receive through education and pre-employment skills development, the better equipped they will be to achieve economic success.

Of special note is the Pasadena Alumni Support Center (PASC), a drop-in center for transitioning youth ages 16 to 25, designed and implemented by a partnership led by Casey Family Programs, together with youth, public partners and community agencies.

PASC employs former foster youth as advocates and provides a range of services and supports, including education, employment, housing, life skills training, and social activities. It was established in 2000, and has since served over 1,000 young people in Los Angeles. Its effectiveness has spawned eight additional centers in Los Angeles County, operated with public funding.

One of the biggest challenges for youth leaving care is finding and maintaining safe, stable and affordable homes. The National Coalition for the Homeless found that between 20 and 50 percent of homeless clients had been in foster care sometime in their lives. During the past fifteen years, child welfare agencies have explored many different types of independent living and transitional living arrangements.

Casey Family Programs, together with the California Youth Connection and many other national organizations such as the Child Welfare League of America, worked to effect passage of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 and the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. This legislation lifted many programmatic and fiscal barriers to providing supervised independent living opportunities for youth, allowing states to use up to 30 percent of their program funds for room and board for youth 18-21 years of age.

I think it is particularly critical to highlight the mental health needs of this vulnerable population. Casey’s Northwest Alumni Study found that, compared to the general population, a disproportionate number of alumni suffered mental health disorders. In fact, we found that the proportion of foster care youth with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be double that of U.S. war veterans.

If nothing else, this statistic should serve to remind us of the significant challenges these children face when they enter our system, and provide significant incentive for us to ensure they have a healthy transition to adulthood.

Many youth, as they emancipate, enter jobs that do not provide health insurance or pay sufficient wages to allow them to purchase coverage independently. In addition, there is a national shortage of qualified providers who can help young people with the often unique developmental, mental health, and substance abuse issues some foster youth may face when transitioning from care.

California has a unique opportunity to address this issue with Proposition 63, which increased mental health funding by about 17 percent and makes transitioning youth a priority. It is important to ensure that these efforts are aligned and integrated with other child welfare system improvements, so we leverage system-wide efforts toward improving common transition outcomes for foster youth.

Overall, children in foster care often suffer from poor health and have much higher rates of chronic physical disabilities, birth defects, developmental delays and serious emotional and behavioral problems than children from the same socioeconomic background who are not in out-of-home care. Although current federal cuts have provided additional challenges on this front, it is vital that all of us advocate for federal policies that give states the flexibility to connect youth leaving foster care to existing health programs such as Medicaid.

Simply put, caseloads in many jurisdictions across the country are too high.

I commend the Select Committee for its focus on this critically important issue, and for putting a primary focus on establishing, by statute, workload standards for California caseworkers.

It is a documented fact that dangerously high caseloads severely jeopardize the health and well being of the children in our care, and prevent front-line caseworkers from focusing on the highest-priority needs regarding permanence and transition for youth.

In New York City, in my capacity as both deputy commissioner of ACS’ Division of Child Protection and later as ACS commissioner, I had the opportunity to help design a series of reforms that significantly reduced the number of children in foster care, and the number of new admissions into foster care.

We defined as one of the critical and necessary elements of this reform process the investing in our workforce to improve the quality of the frontline supervision and caseworkers.

We knew that staff could not be expected to adequately fulfill their responsibilities if they were not trained properly, did not receive appropriate supervision, did not have appropriate staffing support and resources, or if they were constantly afraid that their decisions would not be supported by ACS and New York City leadership.

In short, how we support our front-line caseworkers is both a resource issue and a cultural issue within our child welfare departments. We are either providing our caseworkers with the resources and training they need — in addition to the confidence and backing they need to do their best work — or we’re failing them and the children we place in their care.

Again, I commend the Select Committee for its continued focus on front-line caseworkers and caseloads, and for supporting solutions that will allow them to put their energy and resources on actions, processes and activities that truly improve the outcomes of our most vulnerable children.

The proposed legislative package is strengthened — as noted in the discussion on Education — through programs created with private dollars from foundations, underscoring the need for public-private partnership and collaboration in order to improve the outcomes of children in foster care.

As we look to building a comprehensive policy on foster youth permanence and transition, we believe that the philanthropic community — and organizations like Casey Family Programs and the Stuart Foundation — can help put into place effective, long-term solutions for our most vulnerable children.

We can work to improve transition outcomes by developing capacity, seeding innovative tools, processes and services, and evaluating effectiveness.

It is also important to note that philanthropic dollars must be leveraged and supported to create broad-based and sustainable improvements. Ultimately, effective programs can only create long-term change when foundations partner with public agencies to replicate, help sustain and integrate successful models into a comprehensive outcomes-improvement strategy.

So the question persists: How do we effectively define our responsibility to these young people emancipating from care? What are some of the baseline measures needed that will tell us we’re making progress in equipping these youth to build successful, healthy adult lives? At Casey Family Programs — through the lens of our Northwest Alumni Study — we set forth the following measures for transitioning youth served by our organization. They will:

  • Complete high school (via diploma or GED).
  • Have no current mental health diagnosis.
  • Have health insurance.
  • Have income adequate to meet their needs and not depend on public assistance.
  • Be currently employed or in school.

Is this an ambitious set of benchmarks? Of course. But it’s certainly a minimum standard we would set for our own children, which begs the question — why shouldn’t the same standard be in place for children in foster care?

I’m reminded of remarks given to all of our Casey employees earlier in 2006 by a foster care alumnus now working in our federal government. He told our staff that he doesn’t believe in resilience, he believes in you and me. He believes in our commitment to children in our communities, and he believes in our ability to make positive change happen for children in foster care.

He said our children don’t belong to California, or Los Angeles County or the federal government. They belong to you and me.

And that standard is this:
“If it’s good enough for your kids, it’s good enough for me.”

I want to again thank Madam Chair and the Select Committee for the invitation to offer my remarks this afternoon. Casey Family Programs looks forward to continuing to partner with each of you and the State of California to make the health and well-being of our most vulnerable children our No. 1 priority.

I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.