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Better Foster Care: A Child-Powered Movement

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August 13 will mark a turning point in the battle to set the foster care system right in California and the rest of the nation. What will be your role?

Over the past decade, through ceaseless political reform and human effort, the foster care system in California, and the nation as a whole, has undergone massive positive and definitive change. The movement to set the system right has been largely driven by the people who work in or around it and has grown in force as current and former foster youth have stepped into the legislative process, advocating forcefully for what they are due.

And now that youth-motored movement, at the cusp of its greatest triumph thus far, stares across a budgetary chasm that threatens to derail decades of hard work.

I, as an observer and an outsider, will describe what is at stake. My hope is that having become duly aware, you, the reader and possibly like me an outsider, will see just how important joining this effort is.

In the coming days and into the fall, California, its public and its politicians, can either maintain progressive reform, or we can see those gains lost -- and watch foster youth again languish in the system and exit at 18 to homelessness, incarceration, teen pregnancy and ultimately burden society further.

A series of budget cuts, threatened programs and political triumphs has led to the cohesion of advocate groups, unions, foster care service providers and most importantly a core of articulate and driven, current and former foster youth. Together these groups form a single-minded and growing movement.

Right now, a bill that would set California on the leading edge of national child welfare policy sits in the state senate's appropriations committee. If it is not moved out of that committee by August 13 it will, after jumping innumerable hurdles, die.

It all started last year when Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed $80 million from the child welfare services budget. A host of programs that had contributed to decreasing the number of children in foster care, and better their experiences while in and coming out of the system, were eviscerated or disbanded. In addition, hundreds of social workers were fired driving caseloads dangerously high. Further, the cuts cost as much as $53 million in matching federal funds.

I remember covering the $80 million veto for the LA Weekly and speaking with dazed Los Angeles County administrators scrambling to yet again stretch resources. The wide berth of the cuts fractured the focus of service providers and foster youth alike making a concerted response elusive.

Then, early in 2010, the governor's office, in a wild attempt to stymie a $20 billion projected deficit in fiscal year '10-'11, threatened the elimination of the $40 million transitional housing program (THP-Plus). This would have spilled 1,400 emancipated foster youth, ages 18-24, along with 200 of their babies, onto the street.

The singular threat rallied thousands of foster youth, service providers and administrators across the state. By early March scores of THP-Plus providers and former foster youth flooded the capitol. When the media joined the fracas with dozens of stories about the incumbent cuts, the governor's office quickly reminded reporters that THP-Plus was only on the "trigger list" and was not in immediate danger of elimination. The movement understood the governor's back tracking for what it was, an admission that the organized foster youth voice is something that cannot be ignored.

In late April both the senate and assembly budget committees overseeing child welfare services held hearings on the governor's $80 million cuts. At both hearings, members of the statewide, foster-youth-run California Youth Connection stormed chambers reserved for the monotone of government in action and spoke their resolve.

"You guys think about the lives you are going to affect," 17-year-old Lazara Martinez said before the assembly hearing on April 28th, her voice quaking after having explained what it was like working hard to go to college only to learn that the few resources to help her were all but gone. "I am a real person. I have real feelings. This is real."

Shortly thereafter the committee voted to restore the funds entirely. Just a week before a similar senate committee had voted to restore virtually all the money. Pushed to the edge, foster youth had risen up and were, for the moment, winning.

This set the stage for two critical milestones for the direction of foster care in California and the rest of the nation. First was the budget revision in May and then a series of Senate votes on Assembly Bill 12, which would extend care to 21 as proscribed in federal law.

The May budget spared THP-Plus, but the $80 million in child welfare services cuts was sustained. This leaves the youth driven movement in the tough position of having to remobilize and mop up the hard fought gains in the $80 million battle.

Will such a victory sate the movement? Or, understanding the historic opportunity at hand, will the movement surge beyond the cuts of to child welfare services and successfully push legislation through that would dramatically improve foster care not only in the Golden State, but across the country?

In 2008 the Federal Government offered matching federal funds for states that extended foster care to age 21 through the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. In January of this year California's version, AB12, passed unanimously on the assembly floor. In June, I traveled to Sacramento and watched the movement grow. San Francisco 49er Quarterback and forceful foster youth advocate Alex Smith testified at a State Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, and the bill made it through.

With one-eighth of the nation's foster youth living in California, the passage of AB12 would propel implementation of the Fostering Connections law state by state, vastly improving the outcomes of foster youth across the country and saving taxpayers countless billions of dollars down the road. A 2009 study found that for every dollar invested on California foster youth past age 18 there is a return of $2.40 in increased productivity alone.

In this moment and with AB12, California has a chance to do right by its children. But that will take someone like you, an outsider, to step into the fray. Please visit the Senate Appropriations page here, and tell your elected representatives that you support helping foster youth in their first steps into adulthood.

Until the general public steps into this movement, it will be up to 17-year-old girls like Lazara Martinez to fight for what is right.

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