Raquel Alcantara sat at her dining table with papers piled haphazardly to the ceiling holding one of her girls buzzing with energy on her lap, while trying to charm her other daughter into lending her a coloured pencil so she can jot down a few notes. Alcantara is an adoptive parent—“the most beautiful thing in the world,“she said.
Prior to the two girls Alcantara is currently raising, she was the foster parent to three toddlers. Among them was a little girl who Alcantara still holds a massive place in her heart for.
“She would have night terrors. She would scream,” Alcantara said with a long pause. “ Scream, and scream and be asleep,” Alcantara looked down as she spoke. “I’ve been an aunty for years and I have never seen or heard anything like that before.” It was only then that she looked up. “I remember in the TIP (Trauma Informed Parenting) class we went over case scenarios and looked at multiple hypotheticals to see how to handle a scene like this.” That was how she “got through those nights,” she said proudly.
In Her Words
Raquel Alcantara on her adoption experience, the classes she took, and her concerns for RFA.
Where will the children go?
Alcantara is one of the many fos-adopt parents in California. She started the process of adoption in 2015 and the road was different as compared to the path a prospective parent wanting to adopt this year would follow.
She said that the TIP course that she took was nine hours of the 33 hours required. Now, their are only 12 hours required plus another eight annually, an Los Angeles County social worker said. “I don’t think they understand and are knowledge about the type of children that will enter a family’s home,” Alcanatara commented.
The new program went into effect the first of this year. The curriculum is be more trauma focused and for some counties may not mandate classes Alcantara found vital for foster and adoptive parents such as LGBT and attachment classes.
Among the other changes to the fos-adopt program are that the vast majority of group homes will be closed. Prior, a child sleeping in a group home for years on end would be there even if the situation did not warrant it. The child would be there simply because the bed was open, as one Los Angeles County administrator of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) described it. Under the new law, children placed in group homes are only allowed to stay for a maximum of six months and only for serious needs.
The California legislature classifies group homes as
short-term residential therapeutic programs.
With the closures of group homes the question arises, where will the children go?
There are over 62,000 children in foster care in California , the largest child welfare system in the United States. Under the old fos-adopt program less than five percent of those children would be adopted by the end of the year. Governor Brown signed into law this year a revamp of the fos-adopt program. The new system, Resource Family Approval or RFA, will do away with many of the requirements blamed for the delay in the finalizations of adoptions.
With most youth group homes closing in RFA, there must be enough resource families to take the children into their homes. Though RFA was put in place to speed up the foster and adoption process, it is facing the reality that there is a shortage of families to take the children in, “which was expected,” said Angela Karimyan a Los Angeles County administrator for DCFS. At of this moment there is a shortage of placement resources in Los Angeles County and nationwide and that “it’s nothing new, everyone knows it,” Karimyan said.
The Old Plan
Prior to RFA a prospective fos-adopt parent would have to complete many requirements and attain a foster license before even welcoming a child into their home.
The finalization of an adoption would take upwards of nine months to a year, and in some cases over a year and a half. This would delay the transition of many children into permanent family settings.
Before RFA, prospective parents were required to complete a total of 33 hours of training pre-adoption. The classes included, parenting, CPR training, and a four series of courses that included LGBT and bonding.
Among the lengthiest of classes were Trauma Informed Parenting, or TIP, which ran for nine hours and the attachment course that lasted for six hours. A typical TIP class session would go over case scenarios to help a child get through an episode. The trained teachers provide clear examples and methods to help the prospective parent handle the situations as needed. Often, the teachers would bring in other counselors and coaches to provide insight into the subject matter.
A fault in the old program was that relatives of a child did not have to go through the course requirements. They were subject to background checks and home studies but those too were nowhere near as thorough as that of non-relatives seeking an adoption. A goal of RFA is to standardize requirements for all caregivers, including relatives of a child. For the first time, relatives seeking the adoption of a youth family member are required to complete the exact same courses for approval.
In numerous studies, group homes have been correlated with placing youth in bad situations. In 2001, a UC Berkley study submitted to the California Department of Education found that “children residing in group homes are potentally the state’s most vulnerable and ‘at risk’ population.”
This report, among others, highlighted the effects group homes can have on youth. However, the recommendations offered at the end of the report to help curb the impact of group homes were written fifteen years ago.
The report references a study that found that “ within two or four years after emancipation, 46 percent had not completed high school and 40 percent had been on public assistance or incarcerated. ”
With most youth group homes closing in RFA, there must be enough resource families to take the children into their homes. Though RFA was put in place to speed up the foster and adoption process, it is facing the reality that there is a shortage of families to take the children in, “which was expected,” said Angela Karimyan, a Los Angeles County administrator for DCFS. At of this moment there is a shortage of placement resources in Los Angeles County and nationwide and that “it's nothing new, everyone knows it,” Karimyan said.
I don’t think they understand and are knowledge about the type of children that will enter a family’s home.
The UC Berkley study previously noted,recommended to the California Department of Education the dismantling of group homes. Group homes have been blamed for the youth in their care to face troubles once leaving, such as incarceration.
The heart of RFA is to provide stable permanent homes for a child. The UC Berkley study found that “child well-being is closely connected to permanency.” The children that will remain in group homes will be there for only a short period of time and only if the situation warrants it.
The study also argued that families with more resourced will get through the pre-adoption process. So, under RFA, more resources are being allocated to prospective families. Prior to RFA, there would be a social worker assigned to each child. Now, there is also a social worker assigned to each foster or adoptive parent as well. Among the social worker's duties, he or she is to assess and approve the family, and mandate certain classes for the parent as he or she sees fit.
One DCFS administrator described the new program as though “the family is being held by the hand through and after the approval process.”
The Assembly Member Who Changed the System
Assembly member Mark Stone of the 29th District was of the leading drafters of AB 403, AB 1997 and AB 404, the bills that overhauled the fos-adopt system phasing RFA into law.
Arianna Smith, the communications director for Assembly member Stone and the primary staffer who works on foster youth issues, spoke to me about the genesis of the bills.
“Initially, there was a bill several years ago that called on the department of social services and the governors administration to do serious work to figure out some of the problems in foster care placements,” Smith said.
Among the points needed addressing were group home statuses, agency staffing, and the delayed timeframe for adoption finalizations. The recommendations that followed became part of the new fos-adopt referendum.
3,000 youth live in group home placements.
The goal was to place more kids in family settings where they will likely “do better and reserve group care only for those kids who are not ready to be placed with a family because of very serious behavioral, psychiatric, and other major issues where intensive therapy and treatment will help them eventually succeed in a family setting,” she described.
AB-403, the first of the three assembly bills signed by Governor Brown that began to turn in the fos-adopt program, set out a number of guidelines to changes to the training.
This bill is called “Continuum of Care Reform,” or CCR. Essentially, “the department of social services is tasked with implementing those guidelines and they have the opportunity to make those more specific through regulations and all county letters and a variety of other things that are not spelled out in legislation,” Smith said.
As part of the information packet on RFA, a CCR handout stated that most youth in foster care “are placed in homes with resource families, but about 3,000 youth live in group home placements.”
Over two-thirds of those in group homes have been there for over two years, the report said. A third have lived there for more than five years. Foster youth who live in “ congregate care” or group home settings are “more than likely than those who live with families to suffer a variety of negative short-and long-term outcomes.”
AB-1997, the second of the three bills was set to identify “short-term residential treatment centers” as “short-term residential therapeutic programs,” the bill states.
AB-404, the latest of the three bills “requires the department to develop an intensive service foster care program to serve children needs, including intensive treatment and behavioral needs and specialized health care needs, whose needs for safety, permanency, and well-being require specially trained resource parents and intensive professional in order to remain in a home-based setting.”
[Resource families] are the crutch!
“Before the bill went into effect there were a variety of levels of group homes,” Smith said. “The county or placing entity was basically saying “oh we can’t find anybody but there is an open bed in a group home, here you go,” Smith said bluntly. “This is the kind of placement we want to avoid because that is more associated with the bad outcomes [of group homes].”
Smith described that under the new system, the operator of a group home would have to go through is an accreditation process, “a certification process through the department of health care services to certify they are providing the appropriate mental health treatment that makes them be these new types of facilities.”
Each of the remaining group homes must be checked out and reapproved by the Department of Social Services, or DSS. When asked about the placement of the children who can no longer live in a group home, Smith said it is too early to describe the feedback.
When asked if there has been any feedback on the effects of RFA those far, Smith responded,“there is a lot of transition happening and it is not like we can say there are five or six years of kids under the new system. So, it is a little too early to get the type of feedback you are describing.”
Asked if there was a concern tha there would be a void in the number of resource families available to take the children coming from group homes in, Smith responded without hesitation.
“Absolutely![Resource families] are the crutch! So, yes, resource families] are absolutely a key component to make sure this bill works. That is the number one thing my member will continue to keep fighting for--that there are enough families that take youth.”
Pressed again on if there is any feedback on how RFA is phasing in, especially regarding group homes, Smith interjected and stated that “Over the course of the next year or two Assembly Member Stone and key committee members in the legislature that deal with [foster care] are going to be digging into that data more, but we haven’t yet.”
All the provisions to RFA will not be completely phased in until 2022.
Angela Karimyan,an administrator for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS,said that group homes will become short term residential placement facilities. What that means is before RFA many children would be placed in a group home and stay there “forever,” she explained.
Under new RFA regulations, children will only be in a group home for a maximum of six months and solely on the grounds of risk.
At the moment we have a shortage [of resource families] in L.A. county and nationwide.It's nothing new.Everyone knows it.
Karimyan was clear that “group homes are not a healthy environment for any child and that’s why we need to move them down into a lower level of care.“ This is similar to Smith’s argument for the initial genesis of RFA.
However, with the closures comes a massive wave youth looking for placement. If a key purpose of the closure of group homes is to place a child in a family oriented environment, then there must be enough resource families available to take the children in.
If the RFA informational handout aforementioned stated that there were 3,000 youth in foster care, then there should logically be at least 3,000 resource families at the ready to take these children in to their homes.
When asked if there was a risk in having a shortage of placement resources, Karimyan said that “at the moment we have a shortage in L.A. county and nationwide. It’s nothing new, everyone knows it.”
“So yes, it is going to be a bigger problem than it is now,” she concluded.
To help increase recruitment Kariyman argued that DCFS has to be involved with the community. “We are engaging community partners to help us recruit.” Kariyman said that a key to recruitment will be offering a lot of support and engagement. “You can’t do this work alone,” she said.
Shirley Jahad, an adoptive mother, described her experience through the adoption process as learning to “stand on water.”
For Jahad, the changes made to the RFA program are not addressing the fundamental issues when it comes to fos—adopt.
“Throughout the process there was no respect for the foster parent. At a moments notice, if you ’re lucky to get a few hours, the social workers can take the child you are fostering.” Jahad’s adoptions were finalized prior to RFA taking affect this year. However, when she found out about the changes made to the program, especially when it comes to group homes, all Jahad could was shake her head viscerally, completely astounded.”
I needed to learn to stand on water.
“I felt like I needed to take surfing lessons because it felt like I needed to learn to stand on water, because there was nothing solid,” she said.
“What I’ve read is that even in the few years since I’ve gone through the process, the number of foster families has tanked, the number of perspective foster families, the numbers of moms, and dads stepping forward to be foster parents is shrinking and that is the biggest problem in the system right now. So, if you’re going to close the group homes on one hand, the issue needs to be addressed of having the foster families step forward. And the way to have foster families step forward is on some level to treat them with respect.”
Jahad’s road through adoption was anything but straight and narrow. Jahad waited over a year to bring a child into her home. On a Tuesday night, Jahad got a phone call at work and two hours later a child was at her house. “They said they are on their way with a baby,” Jahad recalled. When asked what did she do after hanging up call, Jahad said, “I left work and went to Target and got a crib.”
By the time she got her son, Tiger, who was only days old, she heard he had an older sister. Jahad approved her home for two and recalled her enthusiasm to bring Tiger’s sister home too. But the joy was short lived.
“There are many, many social workers that come to your home,” she said. “One social worker said “No. No. No. She is in a foster home.” One said “No. No. No. She is already adopted.” And a third one said “Stop asking!”” When asked what Jahad said in response to the third social worker, she said “Ok. What else am I going to say?”
They said they are on the way with the baby.
“So,I have my beautiful foster son, and then six or seven months later I get a phone call.” Jahad took a pause.
“This is so and so the social worker,” she said. “The sister of your foster son is in a county office. The office closes at five. The foster family says she cries too much. Will you take her yes or no?” Jahad mimicked bluntly.
Jahad siad that the only information she had of the child at this point was that she supposedly cried a lot and she was two—years—old.
“Oh, and if you say no we will take your foster son too,” Jahad recalls. Jahad said she had less than a minute or so to answer, if that. “I said yes and went to Target to get highchairs.”
At Target that same afternoon, Jahad got a call saying that there was a miscommunication and that “never mind [Tiger’s sister] was never sitting on the floor of our office. I don’t think they even said they were sorry,” she pointed out.
Jahad said that the social worker then told her “now we are going to do this right, and have a proper transfer of the child to [Jahad].”
Because the birth parents failed to show up for visitation, the process towards Jahad finalizing the adoptions got closer and closer.
Never mind [Tiger’s sister] was never sitting on the floor of our office.
However, the lawyer for one of the birth parents filed an appeal on the grounds of Native American heritage, or Shikwa. Every foster child with a line back to a Native American tribe or a band of tribe has to be checked with those groups to see if they are on their registry. After much research, no connection was made in Jahad’s case. But the county never sent the paperwork and so the appeals court sent back down the ruling to do the process again.
“So now I’m surfing again,” Jahad said.
This added on another year for Jahad. By June 2015 the adoptions were finalized.
Jahad said the foster family is persona non grada in the legal term: an unacceptable or unwelcome person.
“When you go to family court, there is lawyer for the county, there is a lawyer for the children, there is a lawyer for the birth father, there is a lawyer for the birth mother, and there is a lawyer for the social worker,” she described.
“So, there are like five or six lawyers, but the one who is holding the child in their home 24/7—the one who knows the child-- they don’t have a lawyer and they can’t talk in court. They’re persona non grada,”Jahad said.
Jahad said that there are many issues with the fos-adopt system that need immediate addressing, such as group homes and the placement of children.
But she argues that heart of attracting new resource families is to treat them with dignity and respect and “to give them a voice;” otherwise the foster parent is barley surfing.
The day an adoption is finalized, is a celebration as Jahad puts it. “We get all dressed up and go to the court house.” For Jahad, it was a long time coming.
Photos provided by Shirley Jahad.