Of the 38 children emancipated from foster care last year throughout Santa Barbara County, 12 wound up homeless within six months. Given the dangerously disjointed state of the county’s Child Welfare Service Department-as described by the Santa Barbara Grand Jury in a recent report-it’s a wonder that number isn’t higher. While praising the dedication of many Child Welfare Service employees, the Grand Jury found a department plagued by an astonishing rate of turnover that’s worsened every year for the past five years. In fact, the Grand Jury found that the average Child Welfare worker stays on the job less than two years. Given that each worker spends the first three months in training, the Grand Jury concluded, “The system is highly inefficient.” Making matters worse, this turnover comes at a time when foster care caseloads have increased by 81 percent over the past five years without any corresponding increase in foster care workers.
But even without the rampant turnover problems, the Grand Jury concluded that the manner in which Child Welfare employees are assigned to manage foster children ensures a “discontinuity” of oversight and care. By the time most foster kids are placed in their first foster home, the Grand Jury found they had been handled by no less than three county caseworkers. “Because of this discontinuity, many foster children have difficulty in forming trusting relationships with adults,” the Grand Jurors reported. Given that many foster care kids are placed in more than one home before they’re released at age 18, the number of caseworkers a typical foster child encounters is considerably higher. Child Welfare managers explained their employees are assigned specialized functions-such as investigation, preparing court reports, and home placement-rather than individual children, in order to achieve maximum caseload efficiencies.
Compounding this purported discontinuity is the way Child Welfare assigns caseworkers to monitor the progress of Santa Barbara foster kids placed in facilities outside of Santa Barbara County. Given an acute shortage of foster beds within Santa Barbara, roughly 25 percent of all Santa Barbara foster kids are located in homes outside the county. One Child Welfare worker is assigned to cover the out-of-county charges, but that assignment is regularly rotated to alleviate the stress caused by so much travel.
Currently, 584 county youths are in foster homes-up from 322 in 2002. The Grand Jury attributes the increase to neglect, associated with a rise in methamphetamine abuse. Family reunification is the first charge of department workers, but in those cases where the parents are deemed unfit, juveniles go to foster homes. When foster children reach 15 years old, the county begins preparing them to become self-sufficient once they’re emancipated at age 18. This transition often proves exceptionally difficult, and emancipated youth have swollen the ranks of the homeless throughout the nation as well as in Santa Barbara. A new eight-bed shelter for foster kids ages 16 to 18 opened in southern Santa Barbara last fall to teach the life skills necessary for self-sufficiency. Another eight-bed facility has long existed in North County. As good as these facilities are, the Grand Jury noted they served only 16 young people, “leaving the rest to fend for themselves.” The Grand Jury found that foster kids “tend to isolate themselves, having learned to survive the system by ‘making themselves invisible.'” As a result, “Too many youth fall through the cracks and too many become homeless.”
The one bright note found by the Grand Jury was the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program, in which volunteers are assigned to an individual child. The Grand Jury found that the one-on-one interactions CASA offers create the most “consistent adult influence” in foster children’s lives. Frequently, CASA volunteers become mentors to their foster charges. But because the foster child caseload has mushroomed so fast, there are only half enough CASA volunteers to go around.
The Grand Jury’s report was prepared just before three-year-old foster child Gilbert Dominguez of Santa Maria was found beaten, bruised, and dead on June 11. Police arrested Sylvia Marie Dominguez-the boy’s foster mother and her biological aunt-and prosecutors have charged her with murder. The accused has pled not guilty and denied striking the child. While some neighbors have suggested physical abuse was not uncommon at the Dominguez household, county officials said there were no warnings of reported incidents or allegations on file.