Amid budget concerns, Newsom pulls back funding increase for foster care advocate program

The Los Angeles Times | April 25, 2023

By: Mackenzie Mays

SACRAMENTO — Jaheim Smith “aged out” of foster care just last week, a transition that can be distressing for young people who have spent most of their lives in the child welfare system and for the first time are living on their own.
But Smith, recently 21, is confident in his new life. He is renting an apartment in Sacramento and works as a behavioral consultant for children with autism, teaching them skills that help them thrive in school. He works shifts at McDonald’s to make ends meet.

Smith attributes his newfound independence in part to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program. When he was 11, it paired him with a dedicated mentor who helped him over the years with everything from homework to acquiring a driver’s license.

The program recruits and trains volunteers assigned by judges to advocate for individual foster youth in a complex child welfare system struggling to provide enough much-needed social service workers.

But as the state grapples with a $22.5-billion projected budget deficit, CASA is facing a significant reduction in new funding that was meant to expand the program’s reach. Gov. Gavin Newsom in his latest budget plan has proposed trimming a $60-million commitment down to $20 million.

While Newsom administration officials say the move is among many “difficult reductions” necessary to fill the looming budget gap, foster youth advocates are urging the governor and lawmakers to restore that funding, calling the program a “life saving” service. They say that the program will save the state costs in the long run, as research shows that children in the foster system are more likely to become homeless or enter prison.

“I dealt with a lot of abuse. I was a very angry, disruptive kid, and she helped me see that it could be better for you if you just let people in to help you,” Smith said of his CASA mentor. “She helped me see a better side of the world.”

Sharon Holgerson, 65, of Woodland was Smith’s assigned advocate, and said she plans to remain in his life now that he’s older, calling them “good friends.”

Holgerson remembers being stunned by how little he knew about the real world as a child. She taught him what a post office was and showed him how to get important documents such as a birth certificate and Social Security card — “things you need as an adult,” as Smith put it.

“He really has not had anyone to navigate life with. He’s been in placement after placement. But he’s always been very motivated. I knew that he would be a success story. He just needed to get in the right direction,” Holgerson said. “He needed someone to get him through.”

CASA, a national program created in the 1970s, operates 44 programs across California, with more than 11,000 volunteers dedicated to helping children in the foster system with an array of needs, acting as a liaison between them and the courts and other government agencies.

Last year, the CASA program was granted an additional $60 million in state funding to be spent over the next three years under a plan that advocates hoped would amplify fund raising, training and recruiting for volunteers for all foster youth in need.

California is home to more than 78,000 foster youth, more than anywhere in the nation. CASA estimates that volunteers reach only 16% of those children.

But Newsom’s budget proposal in January reduced the funding increase to the program by two-thirds. The decision was “not a proposal that would be put forward, like many others, were it not for the necessity of closing the shortfall,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the Department of Finance.

California’s CASA programs fundraise about $58 million each year, primarily from private donations, to recruit and train volunteers. They also receive $2.7 million in state grants each year, which “doesn’t go very far,” said Sharon Lawrence, chief executive for the California CASA Assn.

Lawrence said she’s “very grateful” to Newsom for additional funding but that CASA programs had made plans for the original, greater amount and it’s too late to pivot and do without it.

“These people have chosen to be in a child’s life, whereas everybody else in the system is paid to be there,” Lawrence said of CASA volunteers. “We want every child who needs it to have that.”

Adjustments to Newsom’s $297-billion state spending plan will come in May, but Lawrence said she has received no signal that the CASA funding will be restored. However, some state lawmakers are in favor of restoring the funding, which could impact the finalized budget in June as they negotiate with the governor.

More than 24% of 21-year-olds who had recently left the foster care system experienced homelessness, according to a study by the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at USC. State data also show that those in foster care are disproportionately represented in California prisons.

“These advocates can play a pivotal role in the outcomes of foster children and can change the trajectory of whether these young people enter our justice system or become homeless — or whether they go on to living healthy, thriving lives,” said Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who supports maintaining the $60 million.

The issue was a rare moment of agreement among Republicans and Democrats during a legislative budget committee hearing in February, when lawmakers including Assemblymembers Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) and Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) urged against the cuts.

Lackey pointed to recent cases of severe abuse of foster care children as proof of the need for the advocates secured by the program.

“What’s more valuable than a child at risk? And yet we’re going to cut here?” Lackey said. “Someone needs to speak out for these young people because they can’t. This is very hurtful to me. I just hope that we will reconsider.”

View this article in the Los Angeles Times.