© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘We needed Wonder Woman’: Newsom cuts to foster care, child services worry families

FILE: State Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Democrat from Van Nuys, criticized proposed cuts to foster care, family programs in 2023.
Rahul Lal
FILE: State Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Democrat from Van Nuys, criticized proposed cuts to foster care, family programs in 2023.

Some programs helping foster kids and families in crisis could lose all funding as lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom address budget shortfall.

Last week Ed Center, a foster parent from San Francisco County, told a Senate budget subcommittee a painful story about reaching his breaking point during his son’s COVID-era mental health crisis. His son’s breakdowns included violent tantrums and blacking out his own face from family portraits with a marker.

“When we were in crisis, we needed Wonder Woman with a social work degree,” Center explained. That’s what he said his family found in the Family Urgent Response System, a free, trauma-informed support system for foster youth and their caregivers. The $31 million state program sends counselors out to families in crisis at all hours.

Now, as the state faces a budget shortfall that the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts could be as much as $73 billion, programs the state funded during times of surplus are on the chopping block.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s January budget proposal would eliminate the family emergency response program and delay, cut, or eliminate other programs aimed at providing a safety net for families. Newsom will present a revised budget by mid-May, based on updated revenue estimates.

Advocates say the cuts will undermine the state’s goals to help vulnerable Californians and those trying to escape poverty.

“All of our programs at CDSS impact people experiencing need or vulnerability, so any proposed reductions are very difficult,” Jennifer Troia, the Department of Social Services chief deputy director, told the committee. “The choices that we are facing as the administration and Legislature in light of the state’s fiscal situation are indeed very difficult.”

The family urgent response program received 4,987 calls for help from January through December 2023, and its staff responded in person to a family in crisis 1,090 times. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, which received the most calls, said 87% of in-person responses resulted in a stabilized placement of the foster child.

Foster care sacrifices

Some of those calls came from Center and his family, which is now stable, he said. But one desperate night, when his family was struggling, the foster father said he drove three hours away from home before calling for help.

“I asked the counselor a simple question: ‘Why should I go back?’” he recalled.

The social worker reminded Center how much he mattered to his son, even if his then 10-year-old couldn’t show it at the time.

“I bought some crappy gas station coffee and I turned around for home,” Center said.

His story brought tears to the eyes of state Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Democrat from Van Nuys who is chairperson of the subcommittee. “It’s been a tough week,” she said, her voice cracking as she reached for tissues.

“Your kid could have been a statistic. He could have been homeless, died by suicide, or you would have had a broken family, and it wouldn’t have been your fault. It would have been because the system failed you,” Menjivar told Center.

Many of the budget priorities set by Newsom and other lawmakers seem out of touch, said Menjivar, who served seven years in the Marines and has worked as an emergency medical technician.

“I come from a working, low-income community; some crossed the border to come here for a better life for their children,” she told CalMatters on Wednesday.

“My mom cleans houses still to this day. I had to start working at age 15 because I needed to help my mom.”

Budget priorities

Menjivar said she gets frustrated talking about bills on such issues as artificial intelligence when her constituents struggle to put food on the table or to buy feminine hygiene products, reflecting California’s wealth inequality. Top-earning families made 11 times what the bottom 10% earned in 2022 — $305,000 vs $29,000, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

In his January budget proposal, Newsom called for at least $66 million in general fund cuts to services for children, families, and foster youth involved with the state’s child welfare system.

His plan includes eliminating a $13.7 million program that helps former foster kids find housing, an $18.8 million housing supplement for foster children ages 18 to 21, and an $8.3 million program that provides public health nursing services for children, youth, and families in LA County.

Menjivar asked state Department of Finance staff how these efforts were selected for program-ending cuts and suggested the decision-makers must have been playing ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ to choose what to cut.

“The solutions reflect difficult decisions in order to achieve a balanced budget,” said Marlon Davis, a budget analyst with the finance department. “Despite these solutions, the administration remains committed to the well-being of children in the child welfare system.”

Menjivar was not impressed: “They’re just the same robotic, copy-and-paste responses. The answers are subpar,” she told CalMatters.

Where else to look

State officials said the family urgent response program is not being fully used in every county, but the governor is willing to work with lawmakers to find other places to cut.

Menjivar recommended looking at state-funded media campaigns as an example.

In 2022, Newsom proposed spending $65 million a year on “strategic communications for community partnerships” to conduct engagement campaigns about COVID-19 vaccination, water conservation, and extreme heat.

His January budget proposal would claw back $5 million from it in 2023, and $8 million in 2024 and 2025, leaving $57 million.

Menjivar also noted the governor has proposed delaying, rather than cutting, $74 million from the Health and Human Services Innovation Accelerator, an initiative to “create the environment for researchers and developers to create solutions” to such health challenges as diabetes, maternal and infant mortality, and infectious diseases.

“Things do have to get cut somewhere,” said Menjivar. “But never, ever, ever from kids and our most vulnerable.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.