California's child welfare system faces drastic cuts

The California Capitol in Sacramento, where lawmakers debate drastic cuts to services for at-risk children and families. Photo by Christopher Boswell.

From housing for homeless families and emergency care for abused children to a dedicated hotline for foster children in crisis and additional support for parents on welfare, these and many other programs are set to be eliminated under the plan California Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled last month.

“Under the governor's plan, there will undoubtedly be people harmed,” Assemblyman Corey Jackson said in an interview with The Imprint. “More people will be homeless, there will be more food insecurity, more foster care, and more children placed in unstable situations without the services they need to recover from the trauma that brought them into this system in the first place.”

Representative Corey Jackson

Jackson and a majority of the state's Democratic lawmakers have rejected the devastating cuts to child and family services included in Newsom's May budget proposal – his plan to address a $28 billion deficit. Last week, lawmakers announced an alternative proposal that would preserve those health and social programs by drawing on a larger share of the state's emergency fund.

The dilemma facing lawmakers is hard to ignore, even in a progressive state like California, where social spending is far more of a priority than in other parts of the country. Years of booming state revenues and federal pandemic relief over the past decade have led to a host of anti-poverty and child protection programs that now face the threat of being scaled back or drastically cut.

The state legislature must complete its budget proposal by June 15. A balanced budget must be passed and approved by the governor by July 1, the beginning of the 2024/25 fiscal year.

Poverty reduction programmes at risk

The CalWORKS program — California's version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which combines cash assistance with supportive services for working, poor parents — is one of the programs that could be cut. The state's welfare program has become one of the most generous in the country, with investments that go far beyond federal minimums.

But similar benefits the state once boasted about – including the Family Stabilization Program – may not survive these years of austerity. Since 2016, the program has provided intensive case management and emergency cash for parents facing a crisis such as sudden eviction. Eliminating the $71 million program is one of Governor Newsom's proposed nearly $293 million in cuts to the CalWORKS program.

Unlike after the Great Recession of 2008, the governor's plan would not cut cash assistance. Rather, the services that help families stay in the program would be at risk, increasing the likelihood that they will become homeless or come under child welfare supervision, say activists like Joy Perrin, an Oakland mother who once relied on the family stabilization program.

About five years ago, while trying to escape domestic violence, Perrin and her two children lived in a van on the streets of Oakland. Desperate for safety and to make sure her family had enough to eat, she found the strength to stay enrolled at Laney College. Without stable housing and additional support, Perrin feared she would not be able to keep her family together.

Joy Perrin of Oakland and her daughters. Perrin is among those advocating for the preservation of vital social services for children and families. Photo provided.

“It's been so hard dealing with my mental health and not trying to show other people how I'm feeling and show them that I'm strong and I'm doing my best to get where we need to go,” Perrin said.

After a desperate call to her CalWORKS caseworker, she was referred to the Family Stabilization Program. With its help, Perrin found child care for her two daughters, then ages 4 and 2, and the family moved into an apartment. The stability allowed her to pursue her goal of earning a degree in kinesiology.

Perrin said while she was relieved that the grants remained intact in the governor's budget, without the additional benefits that provide a way out of poverty, families like hers face a “devastating” future.

“What good is a scholarship if you have no way to pay the rent or cook your own food?” she says.

Child welfare organizations are also concerned. The number of children in foster care in the state is currently nearly 44,000, the lowest level in decades. That's partly due to anti-poverty programs, such as the CalWORKS social assistance program, which stabilize struggling households and prevent family separation, experts say.

“The fewer eyes, the less chance of survival, the less support families receive, the less likely we are to be able to intervene early to prevent a child from being taken away,” said Maria Lopez-Rodriguez, deputy director of the Fresno County Department of Social Services. “And in the end, it becomes more expensive for the state.”

Cuts are also planned for home visits, accommodation and care support

Another CalWORKS service – which matches pregnant women and new parents with a nurse or trained professional for regular home visits – is also slated for significant cuts under the governor's current plan. The home visiting program, which currently serves 3,400 families a year, could see a $47 million cut from its total funding of $110 million.

At a budget hearing in April, Kim Johnson, director of the California Department of Social Services, praised the program's success, citing an evaluation of the program that resulted in a decline in referrals to the Department of Social Services. She also noted that the program is most effective when coupled with cash assistance.

Two programs for the homeless in the child welfare system are also under threat of being eliminated. Since 2016, the state's Bringing Families Home program has offered rent subsidies, case management, security deposits, electricity and gas subsidies, moving expenses, temporary housing, legal assistance and credit counseling to parents trying to find their children in foster care.

A study published last year by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago examined the outcomes of families served by the program in San Francisco County. It found that they had more stable housing, better family functioning, and fewer substance abuse problems. Another evaluation published by the California Policy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, found that participation in the Bringing Families Home program reduced the use of emergency shelters and transitional housing by half and that only 3% of families participating in the program became homeless.

But despite these positive results, the program's entire $80 million budget is now at risk.

Two programs designed to help young people leaving foster care are also slated for elimination. They include a nearly $14 million Department of Housing and Community Development housing counseling program that helps foster children qualify for federal Section 8 vouchers. The counseling programs also help with housing searches, case management and financial assistance with rental deposits and moving costs.

“We are very concerned that restricting access to these federal housing permits will lead to an increase in homelessness among youth who are no longer placed in homeless shelters,” Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth, said in a January interview.

Governor Newsom is also proposing a $26 million cut in funding for assisted living in independent living for foster children ages 18 and older. About 2,900 young people up to the age of 21 depend on this program. Drastic cuts are also looming in emergency care for foster children and licensing assistance for family caregivers.

State Senator Caroline Menjivar

Hotline injured

More than 1,000 government agencies, stakeholders and providers have spoken out in support of the Family Urgent Response System, another program that could lose its funding. The hotline, called FURS, dispatches 24/7 mobile response teams across the state to deescalate situations involving foster children in crisis. FURS has been in operation since 2021 and has helped increase housing stability and reduce the need for hospitalizations and arrests.

State Senator Caroline Menjivar says foster children in California could be at risk if the governor continues efforts to “claw back” services like the $30 million FURS hotline, which aims to prevent multiple placement changes and the migration of foster children into the juvenile justice system.

“If we don't invest in these programs, we will have to pay three times what we could save now,” Menjivar said. “We need more time to reap the fruits of all that we have planted.”