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‘We Needed Wonder Woman’


Newsom Cuts To Foster Care, Child Services Worry Families


Some California social services programs helping foster kids and families in crisis could lose all funding as lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom address the state’s $73 billion budget shortfall.

By WENDY FRY
CALMATTERS

State Senator Caroline Menjivar, a Democrat from Van Nuys, has witnessed tough situations as a seven-year veteran of the Marines, but she wasn’t prepared for some of the hardships she has encountered as chair of a Senate budget subcommittee.
Earlier this month, he heard a painful story from Ed Center, a foster parent in San Francisco County, about reaching his breaking point one desperate night when his family was struggling, and 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 with mental issues, even if the 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 Menjivar’s eyes.
“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.”
It is especially difficult for lawmakers and others because hearings like the one Menjivar was chairing are dealing with the incredible task of as much as $73 billion from programs aiding Californians like Center that soon will be history and no longer available.
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.
“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 in an interview.
“My mom cleans houses still to this day. I had to start working at age 15 because I needed to help my mom.”
So she could especially empathize with Ed Center whose foster son’s mental health crisis included breakdowns with violent tantrums and blacking out his own face from family portraits with a marker.
“When we were in a crisis, we needed Wonder Woman with a social work degree,” Center told the Menjivar subcommittee.
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.
But that likely will end now as the state faces a budget shortfall that the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts could be as much as $73 billion.
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.
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.
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.”

Wendy Fry is an Emmy-winning multimedia investigative journalist who reports on poverty and inequality for the California Divide team. She can be reached at wendy@calmatters.org
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Published with permission of CalMatters.

       
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