Orange County risks failing our foster kids

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

More than 2,300 children in Orange County have been removed from the care of their biological parents and are currently living in foster care.

Each is a human being with great potential. And each has much greater challenges to overcome than other kids. They face a future in which they are more likely to end up homeless, or part of the criminal justice system or unemployed.

The true test of our community’s greatness – of our country’s greatness – is how we care for the most vulnerable among us. That’s why our tax dollars help support these orphaned kids, and why lawmakers have strengthened laws aimed at ensuring they have the same opportunities other kids have.

Yet, by that measure, a recent Orange County Grand Jury report’s findings offer a scathing view of our community’s values when it comes to how we approach caring for the children who need us so much.

Last month, the Grand Jury exposed a foster care system in dire need of more homes for kids who have nowhere else to go. Among the findings, the report concluded that the programs desperately need the resources “to attract and retain trained, supportive and committed foster families who will provide love and stability to all children in foster care.”

And the report described the almost impossible tasks of the social workers who are charged with recruiting foster parents, identifying safe homes and providing support to the children and their families. Up until earlier this year, only three social workers and two event specialists were assigned to recruiting foster families, leading to a sharp decline of the number of available foster homes in the county. And now, even though 400 homes still remain cleared to take in children, only 140 currently accept placements.

“Clearly staff resources were inadequate for the challenging tasks,” the Grand Jury wrote.

National standards recommend social workers who protect these vulnerable youth carry caseloads of no more than 15 at any given time. That’s because each case involves so much more than just one child and can include the foster family, the biological family, siblings and requirements for regular visitation.

In Orange County, the Grand Jury found average caseloads are between 23 and 30 – way over the standard. They’re stretched thin beyond measure, making it difficult to nurture relationships with foster families. That, in turn, makes the fostering experience less attractive.

We regularly hear from social workers who take time off work so they can catch up on paperwork, who work double digit hours every day to ensure these kids are protected, who can’t sleep at night and feel guilty of taking time away from the job because of the consequences of a chink in the already fragile safety net. The stress has led to a turnover rate of approximately 25 percent, exacerbating the problem, as it takes about a year and a half for a new hire to be fully trained.

In its recent response to this crisis, the county inaccurately rejected the worker turnover rate and the effects high case loads are having on the children in the county’s foster care system.

If we are going to meet the needs of these kids, to give them the best shot at a good future, we must acknowledge these issues instead of attempting to explain them away. And we must invest in the futures of all Orange County’s children – especially those who need us most.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: July 22, 2016