Saturday, July 19, 2008

Governor signs pair of foster care transition bills

SACRAMENTO — Teen parents in foster care would have the right to consult their court-appointed attorneys before they agree to place their own children into foster care or under a supervised program under legislation signed this week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bill, AB2483, was one of a pair Schwarzenegger signed that address the transition foster-care youth make into adulthood. Another bill, AB2310, would require that foster-care youth are provided with documentation they need to apply for jobs and financial aid as they age out of the system.

Though the supervision programs are voluntary and allow social workers to provide services for the children, teen parents are often unaware that they could lose their children if they fail to comply with terms of the program.

"The system is geared to taking babies away and putting them in foster care," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, the author of AB2483. "But taking the child away does not solve the problem. It's better to help the (teen parent) become an adult and a parent."

Minor parents in foster care are dependents themselves, coming to the system from abusive or neglectful homes. Their children often become dependents of the juvenile court, though minor parents often choose voluntary programs of supervision to avoid having their children in foster care.

All too often, however, minor parents are unable to live up to the terms of Advertisementthe program, leading to the loss of custody of their children. The terms can be as simple as requiring the parent to attend parenting classes or finish school, but are difficult to meet if resources for transportation or child care are not offered, Bass said.

Teen parents can be intimidated by the system or are afraid to say no to a laundry list of conditions to avoid having a petition filed on their baby in dependency court.

But if a teen parent refuses to put his or her child into supervised programming, their social worker can file a petition to make the child a dependent of the court.

An attorney can fight for more resources to ensure a teen parent can meet the conditions, Bass said. At minimum, attorneys can make it easier for minor parents to understand the terms of the program.

"The main point is that without legal counsel, you have a child navigating through an extremely stressful situation," said Bass, a leader in foster-care advocacy who is hoping to place a bond on the 2008 or 2010 ballot to overhaul the foster-care system.

Juvenile courts are required to appoint a counsel to minor parents in the foster-care system.

Under AB2310, every county welfare department would be required to make sure documentation — such as Social Security cards, birth certificates, and proof of citizenship or residence — are provided at the time they age out of the foster-care system.

It also requires they have documentation to help them obtain benefits and services, such as extended Medi-Cal eligibility, referral to transitional housing or assistance in finding other housing or employment or other financial support.

The bill was co-authored by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, and Bass. The legislation takes effect Jan. 1, 2009.

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