Let us imagine for a moment that your lifelong dream has been to help medically fragile children. You earned an advanced degree and you were lucky enough to get a job at a specialized children’s hospital. The pay was decent and the work, while challenging, was very rewarding.
After several years, you were keenly aware of two things: One, you never receive a pay increase, and two, the needs of the children being served were becoming much greater. However, you continue steadfastly because of your heartfelt dedication to young lives in need of healing.
After many years, these difficult conditions persist, plus you have been asked to take on more responsibility and you are given a 10 percent pay cut! The children no longer receive the level of care they need because you are stretched to the max. Now, unable to support yourself doing the work you are trained for, you end up having to look for a second job to help make ends meet.
Finally, you softly protest these working conditions and are basically told to “think about the good you are doing — isn’t that reward enough?” Believe it or not, this is exactly what the state of California has done to highly skilled, masters level social workers serving children within private treatment foster care agencies.
Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a dramatic national and statewide policy change to use specialized foster families to work with vulnerable, traumatized foster youth instead of institutional care. This change has been really good for kids, keeping them in a family setting within their community and school, and close to family, friends and natural community supports.
Plus, it is a short-term intervention to help them quickly reunify with family or move to a permanent family — no more long-term foster care! In California, the agencies that provide this service are called Foster Family Agencies. Family Care Network Inc. has been a licensed FFA for nearly 27 years.
In this span of time, the state and counties have exerted tremendous effort to place foster youth in families, reducing group home placements by nearly 50 percent. Coinciding with this shift, the children being served by FFAs have much higher needs and require considerably more attention and help. However, in spite of saving tens of millions of dollars on reduced group home costs, California has refused to grant cost of living adjustments to FFAs for 13 years, in addition to having implemented a 10 percent rate cut in 2009.
Under the state’s FFA rate formula, agencies receive only $15.30 per hour for mastered social workers. By contrast, state and county social workers with equal or more likely less stringent educational and workload requirements make nearly double that hourly rate.
Let me be straightforward — it is not about the money per se, it is about the negative impact the situation has created on the high-needs children and youth we serve. Dispirited and underpaid social workers do not stay long nor always perform at their best. High turnover rates mean continual disruption of services to foster children, youth and families. (FCNI has lost 12 social workers over the past year.) It produces higher caseloads, less quality time with clients, reduced support for foster families and seriously impacts our ability to recruit and train new foster families. It can also slow down a child’s move to family reunification or permanency.
In the big-picture view, since the 2009 rate reduction, more than 30 percent of FFAs in California have gone out of business. With fewer treatment foster parents, more foster children/youth end up in group care, which costs more and is much less effective. Our most vulnerable, traumatized children and youth are being further victimized by the system that is supposed to care for them and promote their safety, well-being and permanency. And while help is on the way through the Legislature-initiated “foster care reform process,” real reform is still two or three years down the road.
Interim help is needed immediately. You can advocate for foster children and youth right now.
The California Alliance of Child & Family Services has been successful in securing members of the California Senate and Assembly to introduce budget legislation to temporarily invest in FFA social workers until the reform process is complete. Please send a letter, fax or email to your state senator and Assembly member, asking them to support the budget request to establish an interim increase in funding for social workers in foster family agencies.
For further information or advocacy help, visit http://www.FCNI.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Roberts is chief executive officer and founder of Family Care Network.