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Foster care system shifts to relatives, but doesn't offer support

Lola Bell entered California's foster care system at age 2.
Courtesy: Alliance for Children's Rights
Lola Bell entered California's foster care system at age 2.

With more than half of the foster children in Los Angeles County living with relatives, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the system isn't doing enough to support them.

"For a long time, there's been this prejudice that if you can find a grandmother, she should take care of this kid and doesn't need a lot of support and services," Kuehl said. She's proposing the county board order the Department of Children and Family Services to study discrepancies between relative caregivers and other foster parents - and figure out what needs to be done to close the gap.

People who volunteer to become certified foster parents receive training and regular visits from social workers and therapists. Until recently, foster parents also received a larger monthly stipend than relative caregivers.

"We're looking to identify what services might be needed and to solicit people to provide them," Kuehl said. About 52 percent of the county's foster children reside with an aunt, uncle, or other relative. Her proposal comes before the board Tuesday.

"The data suggests that children who are in foster care do better if they are with relative caregivers, yet we don't incentivize that," said Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund and a former aid to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Kuehl's proposal also asks DCFS to see whether it can set aside $1.25 million of its budget to finance services for relative caregivers. It also asks the department to research what funds would be needed to set up a 24-hour call center for families who need help.

"They need respite, they need educational opportunities, they need assistance navigating the bureaucracy of the benefits programs, they need legal assistance," said Angie Schwartz of the Alliance for Children's Rights. "I think we're finally recognizing that a lot of these families are low-income and they're doing the best that they can with limited resources."

She said California has looked to relatives to take in foster kids to avoid putting them in group homes - especially younger kids.

"But if you look at foster kids over the age of 14, you see a steady increase in the use of group homes and you also see a steady decline in the use of relative caregivers," she said. "So you have to look at how we're supporting families."