Orange County has a severe shortage of foster homes, particularly for teens, siblings and children with serious medical or psychological needs -- and it could get worse when a new state law limiting the use of group homes goes takes full effect next year, according to a county grand jury report released this week.
Foster children stay an average of 31 days at the in the county’s Orangewood Children and Family Center and some “hard to place” kids remain there for six months, according to the 2015-2016 Orange County Grand Jury.
The Grand Jury assessed whether the county’s Children and Family Services division was prepared to implement AB 403, which passed last October and limits how long foster children spend in group homes -- which house six or more children and are cared for by paid staff.
Under the new law, abused children removed from homes and placed in Orangewood for emergency shelter will only be able to stay there for 10 days.
The grand jury estimated the county's Children and Family Services department would need to license between 100 and 150 quality foster homes by January to be ready to meet the demands of the new state law.
The state Continuum of Care Reform Act, which takes full effect January 2017, phases-out group homes in favor of what’s being called Short Term Residential Treatment Centers where foster children can stay up to six months to receive therapy before being placed in a family setting.
In a 39-page report, the grand jury found that Orange County has “failed to provide safe, nurturing and permanent homes” for so-called “hard to place” children, which includes teenagers, children with serious medical or mental health needs. That’s partly due to the shortage of foster homes.
“The result is that traumatized children spend months in shelters awaiting placement, endure multiple placements and/or separation from their siblings, thus suffering further psychological damage,” the report states.
Nearly a third of the approximate 2,300 children removed from homes in Orange County have been in foster care for two years or longer, according to the report.
About 90 children of them are “medically fragile” and about 50 are on probation, which makes placing them with a family extremely difficult, according to the report, forcing some to stay in juvenile detention.
The grand jury criticized Children and Family Services for not adequately recruiting and retaining foster parents, especially for this vulnerable population.
About 400 family homes in Orange County are licensed to take in foster kids, but Elizabeth DenBleyker, spokesperson for the Orange County Social Services Agency, said only about 140 are accepting new ones. She said part of the problem is some foster parents end up adopting a foster child and stop taking in others.
DenBleyker said for every 100 homes the agency licenses each year, they lose about that same amount.
"It's no small task what we're asking people to do,” she said.
Foster parents interviewed by the grand jury complained of constant staff turnover at the agency and said social workers were so overworked that they had little time to spend with them. According to the report, a quarter of the county's social workers leave and must be replaced every year.
DenBleyker said the county is working on a $1.2 million marketing plan to recruit foster parents with money awarded from the state under AB 403.
“We want to debunk myths about fostering out there,” she said. “We would love to have families come in that are single, that don’t own homes. We really just ask that you have your heart and your home open for a child.”
The cash would also provide more training and services to foster parents, such as a 24-hour mental health response, to retain more foster parents.