Foster care reform awaits decision

Sitting on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk is a bill that extends foster care to the age of 21.

Sitting on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk is a bill that extends foster care to the age of 21.

“This is the biggest thing to happen to the foster care system in recent years,” said Daniel Heimpel, project director of Fostering Media Connections, a grass roots organization for foster care system reform.

SB 12, passed by the California State Senate at the end of August, comes at the heels of the Fostering Connections to Success Act in 2008. The act funnels federal funding to states that provide an extension of foster care until the age of 21.

“This policy is cost-neutral,” said Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation, advocate of SB 12. “We will be able to transform the current Kin-GAP into a new program that is federally funded.”

The Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program (Kin-GAP) gives financial aid to those living with relatives under foster care. If the bill passes, the federal government will pay a portion of Kin-GAP.

Federal funding of this program will save the state $60 million, Lemley said. This money will be directed toward the extension program.

Currently, the foster care system provides housing, care and financial support to thousands of people but serves only minors. Once they turn 18, those who are in foster care become emancipated from the system.

“There is a transitional housing program available for some,” Heimpel said. “But once they turn 18, they are usually turned out into the streets.”

If the bill is signed into law, those who wish to stay in the foster care system may choose to do so until they turn 21.

“For those who stay in the system, they will be able to still get a place to live, have a case worker still work with them and have the influence of an adult in the life,” Heimpel said.

Students already emancipated from the foster care system often provide for themselves, with little government assistance. Other services for these students come from privately funded initiatives such as the Guardian Scholars Program (GSP), available on many campuses in California.

GSP works with students individually and gives assistance with housing and financial aid. The program also pairs students with mentors, to provide a stable adult presences in their lives. Under SB 12, these services will still be available for students, but there will be less of a need.

“Some of the possible outcomes may be different from what we see now,” said Valeri Garcia, program advisor for the GSP at UC Davis. “For example, we provide housing during the winter break when the dorms are closed. They may have a place to go, [rather] than having to find a place here on campus.”

Financial aid will still be available for those who need to access it. Programs like the Chafee Grant give students who come from foster care up to $5,000 per academic year, regardless of their decision to opt into foster care until age 21.

If the law is passed, those emancipated from the system at age 18 will still be able to go back into the program until they turn 21. However, the new program will not be active right away. It will be phased into the foster care system year by year.

Those who are currently 18 and over and out of the foster care system are ineligible to opt into the program.

But for those who are still in foster care, there is hope, Heimpel said.

“With an eighth of the nation’s foster youth in California, an extension of care to 21 will unleash a wave of positive change. Not only in California but across the country,” Heimpel said.

SB 12 is currently under review and must be signed or vetoed by Sept. 30.

SARAHNI PECSON can be reached at city@theaggie.org.