By Deb Murphy
“This is the hardest work we and probation have to do,” Inyo County’s Health and Human Services Director Jean Turner told the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting, “dealing with families at their darkest hour; going into the home and helping families who have lost their way.”
Turner was describing the department’s Wraparound program, a state-funded model designed to keep children, primarily teen-agers, out of group homes. The program’s focus is on developing a healthy, healing environment within the extended family and keeping the teens in their community. While the county’s numbers are minute compared to urban areas, the program has worked since it was put in place in 2011.
“Over time we see risk factors reduce and strengths increase within the families,” said Child Protective Services’ head Marilyn Mann. “We don’t have enough numbers, but the anecdotal information indicates what the program has meant to families.” Twenty teens and their families have completed the program, nine either re-offended or opted out. Of the 11 who completed the program, nine are working or going to school, Mann said.
Ironically, the program has worked too well. The state mandates the program be revenue neutral, providing no more funding to each county than would be spent sending participants to group homes. In order to opt into the program, the child has to be found eligible for group home placement by the Juvenile Court. “The work is staff intensive,” Turner said, “but still less than the cost of placing kids in group homes and with better results.”
Looking at legislative trends – California has committed to getting out of the group home business by 2017 as it develops needs assessments tools for existing programs – Turner’s department has developed a new program, incorporating Wraparound principles. Family Intensive Response and Strengthening Team (FIRST) is the result, modeled on Wraparound, just working with families at risk before they’re in full-blown crisis.
Additional funding could come from sources such as First 5 and Substance Use Disorders since addiction is often at the core of family issues. “We’d be creating more doors to bring families in,” Turner said.
While a full-blown FIRST would require an additional staff position and the addition of a supervisor, the Board approved the concept and a pilot program, just not the additional staffing. Currently, there are two case workers on staff with one vacant but budgeted position to be filled. “There’s merit in piloting FIRST,” Turner said in a phone interview. “We believe in it; we’ll just tip-toe out the door.”
With minimum funds to recruit foster families, H&HS has worked within the families to identify “natural supports,” generally relatives who take the children into their homes or help out in a significant way. “The Native communities have done a good job” identifying support from within the extended family, Turner said.
“Issues with younger families are growing at an alarming rate,” Turner said, underscoring the need for early intervention. “From 2009-12, we’ve seen more injuries to children under one-year of age,” she said. Those numbers have increased in the last two years. “We need solutions. We need to get into those families earlier; there’s no Wraparound money for babies.” If the department focuses on the front end it can “fix the issues before group home placement is even a consideration. It’s hard to prove the effectiveness of early intervention with numbers. But we can look at each case and identify probabilities.”
While the state seems committed to closing group homes, or getting out the child raising business as Turner said, it has yet to identify any alternative except short-term treatment centers. That was Supervisor Jeff Griffiths concern. Griffiths’ family has taken in foster children, giving him a unique perspective. “My fear is that closing group homes will be like closing mental facilities in the 80s. The state shut them down, then said, ‘there, the problem’s solved.’ Then the patients ended up in jail or homeless. Placement even in a relative’s home is still going to be tough with kids with a higher level of needs. It may be impossible to place all the kids; they’ll end up on the street.”