Major changes planned for Santa Clara County foster care system
The Board of Supervisors are pictured in this file photo. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    Santa Clara County is proposing sweeping reforms to how it treats children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect. If implemented, the reforms would result in a major expansion and overhaul of the county’s foster care system and concentrate efforts to reunite children with family members.

    The proposed reform package, presented Tuesday at Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors meeting, stems from direction the board gave last month to winding down operations at the problematic Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center, or RAIC.

    Critics said the RAIC, which is supposed to be a portal for children entering the system, had become a de facto shelter — a dangerous place where young children mingled with older youth suffering from addiction, mental health and behavioral problems who sometimes stayed for weeks on end. Nevertheless, staff at the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services balked at closing the center without first establishing a new system to send vulnerable children back to their families when possible and into foster care when necessary.

    Social Services Agency Director Bob Menicocci said the county has added six staffers to the RAIC to place children within 24 hours of their arrival and to provide additional safety and security as the center is phased out of use. He said officials are identifying 20 emergency placement beds with foster families to be ready within the next two weeks.

    Meniococci also said the agency has intensified its recruiting and resource development for foster parents, and that he wants to triple the county’s budget for support services to them to $1.4 million — a proposal staff will detail at the board’s Jan.14 meeting.

    Other major reforms presented in January could include an option to relocate the Intake and Assessment Center to downtown San Jose and to outsource the receiving function provided at the center. Menicocci said officials are also exploring the possibility of opening a so-called “short-term residential treatment program” facility for foster children with substance abuse and mental health issues who might have ended up the RAIC as a long-term shelter.

    Several foster parents, including Dave and Maggie Cokayne, told lawmakers Tuesday about their difficulties dealing with the county. The Morgan Hill couple have been foster parents for six years and have a family including a biological son and a adopted daughter. The Cokaynes have fostered children from 3 days to 11 years old and are now fostering an infant.

    “We took in a first grader and we specifically told the receiving center that we could not take her to her school of origin because we had to take our daughter in the opposite direction,” Dave Cokayne said. “When the time came and we took the child in, the rides never came. So, we spent four months alternating tardiness between the two children and their educations suffered as a result.”

    “If our goal is to keep children out of the RAIC and into homes we must address the lack of resources,” Maggie Cokayne added. “It is no secret we have a recruitment and retention problem and this impacts our entire system, including the RAIC.

    “Most of us are barely hanging on,” she added. “This should not be acceptable.”

    Katie Taylor, a four-year foster parent, also complained about a lack of support.

    “In order for my family to properly care for foster children, including those with mild to moderate special needs, we require improvements to services including transportation assistance and specialized training on how to respond to behaviors related to special needs,” Taylor said.

    That lack of support often results in hardship for foster families, said Emerald Perkins, a San Jose police officer who has been a foster parent for five years. Perkins said it’s impossible for her to find approved child care when the county reimburses her only $6 an hour.

    “Unfortunately, these resources are critically underfunded,” Perkins said. “That leaves all the burden on foster parents.”

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg emphasized the concerns raised by the families — particularly the need for more transportation and child care support — and asked staff to specifically address those issues in the January report.

    “We heard from person after person that they could do so much more with transportation help and child care assistance,” she said.

    The proposed reform package also includes the creation of a “family finding unit” within DFCS that would connect kids with other biological relatives responsible enough to care for them. Menicocci told the supervisors that the agency had already asked internally for volunteers to establish the unit.

    “What we are thinking is having approximately five social workers and one social work supervisor to fulfill that function,” Menicocci said.

    Supervisor Cindy Chavez directed Menicocci to provide “budgets, concrete goals and next steps” for each of the proposed reforms when the board meets again Jan. 14.

    Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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