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Sonoma County approves foster care overhaul

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday approved a major overhaul of the local foster care system, a move aimed at dramatically scaling back on group home placements while increasing the use of home-based family care.

The plan is a response to upcoming statewide changes that recast group homes as short-term residential treatment programs, establish new levels of provider accountability and bolster supportive services for youths placed with relatives and foster families.

But the success of the plan largely depends on whether the county can get more families to participate in the retooled foster care system and provide stable permanent homes for the system’s most troubled kids, officials said.

“That’s the key to this whole reform: How do we recruit and support and retain families? We’re having some success already,” said Nick Honey, Sonoma County’s director of Family, Youth and Children’s Services.

“We’re entering sort of a brave new world as far as that recruitment piece goes,” Honey said.

Known as the Continuum of Care Reform, the statewide overhaul began four years ago when state officials and county welfare directors began working on a statutory and policy framework to overhaul placement and treatment options for foster youth.

That effort led to state legislation, AB 403, that was signed last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown. The state will begin phasing in the legislation’s massive changes at the beginning of 2017.

As of this past spring, there were 453 youth, under age 21 in the county human services’ foster care program, with an additional 42 foster youths supervised by the county probation department. Of the foster youths in the human services program,?156 youths were placed in foster homes; 176 in the homes of relatives; 33 in group homes and 29 at the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home.

Nearly two thirds of the probation department’s foster youths were placed in group homes.

Seven licensed group home programs operate in Sonoma County along with about 90 foster homes either licensed by the county or certified through a foster family agency.

Sonoma County has a history of falling below federal targets for transitioning kids to permanent families.

Between April 2015 and March 2016, only?18.1 percent of children who had been in foster care for longer than 24 months exited to permanent families. The national target was 30.3 percent.

In 2014, the county had the highest rate of kids in group homes in the state, largely due to lack of foster homes available for children with intensive needs and the large number of groups located throughout the county, according to a county report.

The local overhaul effort, which brought together the heads of the county’s mental health, human services and probation departments, will require providing extensive “wrap-around” services to relative and non-relative foster families, known as “resource families.” These families will be required to undergo extensive certification annually, and will receive ongoing support.

Changes to the current foster care system include:

Residential group homes will no longer be used unless the child requires an extremely high level of mental health treatment.

Existing group homes will transition to short-term residential treatment programs and be required to obtain national accreditation.

The Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, the county’s emergency shelter for children separated from their parents, will transition to a 10-day shelter. Longer stays will likely be possible.

Overhauling the existing foster care system will take time, Honey said.

“It’s going to be gradual, it’s not going to happen overnight, but I think building on our existing strengths is how we’re going to have to do it,” he said.

David Koch, the county’s chief probation officer, stressed the importance of providing greater support for families that take foster youth in the probation system. Koch said 95 percent of the foster youth that go through probation eventually return home.

“One of the main areas of focus for probation is in strengthening those families” with family therapy and other support services, Koch said.

The plan also calls for the human services and probation departments to recruit 15 highly trained “resource families” that can fill the gap created by the elimination of group home beds. Mental health staff will work closely with foster family agencies to provide intensive mental health services to youths transitioning out of group homes.

The local overhaul includes the addition of nearly 23 full-time positions, including social workers, psychiatric and public health nurses, senior office assistants and a program planning and evaluation analyst. The cost of the reform effort is pegged at ?$2.6 million for the 2016-2017 fiscal year and $4.1 million for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

No additional general fund dollars will be used to cover the cost of new staff positions, said Jerry Dunn, director of the human services department. The cost will be covered by state and federal funds, as well existing realignment funding that will be redirected as a result of savings derived by transitioning to the new foster care model.

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