Fresno County will have to turn away foster parent hopefuls until a backlog is cleared

Fresno County has halted processing applications for potential foster parents due to a backlog of existing applicants who still need to be vetted.

The county is focusing its efforts on emergency approvals for relatives and mentors of children who have been removed from their homes, according to Tricia Gonzalez, deputy director of child welfare at the Fresno County Department of Social Services, leaving a long waitlist of would-be foster parents who do not have a child identified.

“We do initial background checks and then they can finish the rest of the evaluation process later,” Gonzalez said. “We do that at intake so the kids never have to go to a stranger’s home.”

Applications are now closed until June 1, and the county has asked interested foster families to instead contact a list of partner agencies.

The backlog stems from the provisions of a 2017 law aimed at standardizing how foster families and agencies are checked and approved. Under the Continuum of Care Reform Act, counties have 90 days to complete an evaluation of each potential foster parent that includes a home inspection and a psycho-social screening. Prior to the passage of the law, potential fosters were approved in different ways, and family members taking in a child did not receive training or funding.

“The standards are high, and that’s not a bad thing,” CEO of Transitions Children’s Services Brian Van Anne said.

But the additional demand for approvals has bogged down the system. Gonzalez said that despite her staff working overtime all year, her office simply does not have the resources to process all applications within 90 days, and that the governor’s proposed budget does not provide enough for the next year. The governor’s 2019-20 budget reduces the general fund amount dedicated to foster family approval from $32 million to $8 million, a study by the Legislative Analysts’ Office found.

“We realized we were not honoring the families on our waitlist,” Gonzalez said. “It is not our intention to turn anyone away.”

Multiple hurdles

Whitney Bunker, co-founder of City Without Orphans, a local organization that offers programs and resources for foster children and families, said that the county is experiencing transitional hurdles due to the legislative changes as well as local-level administrative changes.

“A pattern with the system in general is that we put out a new law or regulation without thinking, ‘How are we going to implement this?’ And you can’t turn a ship on a dime,” Bunker said. “But they are so far behind, if they continue to try and bite the bullet and keep welcoming everyone in, they will lose more people in the long run.”

Bunker said that some families prefer to work directly with the county because of a perception that the county prioritizes its own families for placements, particularly when it comes to infants and younger children. Others would rather not deal with the additional level of bureaucracy that comes with working with an agency.

But she said she encourages families to interview at least three agencies before making a decision, and that one benefit of a foster family agency is the additional level of support its social workers can provide.

“I can see how it would be discouraging to those families who want to work with the county because they want to get things going, but if they feel like they are meant to go through the county, this is only a pause until the summer,” she said.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, who sits on the the budget subcommittee that oversees human services, said it was troubling that the budget for foster family approvals may be slashed when it’s still needed. He said he’s also concerned that the new law is creating additional burdens on foster agencies by imposing a one-size-fits-all process.

“Sometimes a law does the opposite of what it was mean to accomplish, in this case, it was making foster care better,” Patterson said.

Patterson said that if the issue is ubiquitous throughout California, that it may be possible to put forward an ask for additional funding as early as this spring during the budget approval process.

Partner agencies help

Gonzalez said she believes Fresno is unique in turning to partner agencies for assistance with a problem that many other counties are facing statewide. The county’s list includes North Star Family Center, Transitions Children’s Services and Valley Teen Ranch, among others.

There is no additional fee for going through an agency, however, potential foster parents may have to redo some aspects of the months-long approval process, like fingerprinting and orientations. Because the training curriculum for foster parents is now standardized, a foster parent who has already obtained a certificate of completion from the county would not have to repeat it, Van Anne said. Home visits would also not need to be redone.

Van Anne said the decision to turn to agencies is a good answer to the demands created by the Continuum of Care Reform Act.

“There was a general question back then of, ‘How are we going to get this done in 90 days?’” Van Anne said. “[Using agencies] is kind of an ingenious move, because they’re struggling with finding and vetting families and that’s what we do.”

He says his agency has already received calls from families who were notified by the county that their applications could not be processed at this time

Alicia Abi-Rached, director of Valley Teen Ranch, which receives referrals from around California, said Fresno County is doing better than most in meeting the timelines for approving families, which many other counties struggle with. Still, Abi-Rached said she understands the frustration that a member of the public who hopes to foster a child who doesn’t have willing family members may feel.

Out-of-home care numbers

Fresno has between 1,700 and 1,900 children in out-of-home care, which includes foster care. Approximately 50-60 are in group homes.

The greatest need is for foster parents and foster parents who would be open to adoption if needed, Bunker said.

Danielle Macagba, foster family and adoptions director at North Star Family Center, said that despite the number of applications from foster parent hopefuls, there is an unmet need for families who would be able to take in children over 5 years old, those with socio-emotional needs and large sibling groups.

“Some kids have particular needs that go beyond regular parenting. It’s time consuming, not just the appointments, but visitations with biological parents, sports and activities. Parents must be committed, physically and emotionally,” Macagba said. “Ultimately we all have the same goal, which is to get homes, good homes, for kids.”

Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.