Santa Barbara County recently joined a growing number of California counties that can now place foster youth who have mental health or emotional challenges with local families, keeping them in the county and a part of their community.
While traditional foster care focuses on placement, the county’s Intensive Therapeutic Foster Care program will integrate placement and services to treat foster children who have mental health, emotional, behavioral, medical and social needs. These children will be placed in a family setting with trained caregivers and supported by a team of professionals.
“We can provide a high level of services based on their needs but also keep them in the county,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, Santa Barbara County Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services’ chief strategy officer. “The idea is that someday they are going to turn 18, and we want them to be able to integrate back into their community.”
Santa Barbara County has identified five local families to foster ITFC youth so far, with program leaders looking to keep the new program small. “This is a program that will impact a number of kids in our community,” said Grimmesey.
ADMHS and the Santa Barbara County Social Services Department partnered with the San Luis Obispo County nonprofit Family Care Network, Inc. to launch the local ITFC program, hoping to place the first child in early June.
“The idea is to keep these foster youth in their community,” said Family Care Network Founder and CEO Jim Roberts. “You don’t want to disconnect them from their school or anything else they have been involved with.”
Roberts began Family Care Network’s San Luis Obispo County ITFC program in 1999. Since then, staff has placed 278 kids, with 89 percent of those successfully housed in stable family settings or diverted from a higher level of institutional care.
“You want to be able to lead (kids) to permanency,” said Roberts. “If you move them out of the area, how do you establish permanence?”
Several dozen Santa Barbara County residents between the ages of 10 and 21 are currently treated outside of the county. ITFC could help lower that number by recruiting and training local foster families and foster parents to care for youth whose behaviors have moved them closer to hospitalization or group homes.
“Maybe some youth are too violent or unstable to be placed, but that’s such a small percentage,” said Roberts, who started Family Care Network almost three decades ago. “This is largely a program that will benefit both kids and families.”
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ITFC families will receive specialized training in crisis management, dealing with diverse behaviors and caring for youth who have experienced trauma, among other topics. These foster parents will also have access to around the clock emergency assistance and a collaborative team of specialists while they provide short-term care for a local child. They will also receive an enhanced monthly stipend of approximately $2,200, according to Roberts.
“These kids have gone through a huge amount of loss, and trying to minimize that loss is very important,” said Ann Ward, whose family has been fostering children in San Luis Obispo County with Family Care Network for more than 20 years. After welcoming between 90 and 100 youth into her home since 1986, a number of whom have had mental health, emotional or behavioral needs, Ward is training other foster parents.
“They may have lost their families, their safety, their home, their school, their friends, so we try to keep them in their community, if at all possible, to minimize the loss,” said Ward.
Not many ITFC programs exist around the state, but that’s changing, said Roberts. Family Care Network has long been a leader in ITFC programming, helping other areas, including the Bay Area and Los Angeles County, develop or enhance their programs.
“It has been a rather small group of folks that are doing intensive therapeutic foster care,” said Roberts. “There were a lot of counties that submitted plans, but very few were actually doing it.”
After the Katie A. v. Bonta class action lawsuit was settled in December 2011, all counties were required to expand home and community-based mental health services for foster youth in January 2013 by providing intensive care coordination, in-home services and a therapeutic foster care program.
“If you really want to operate a program like this well and with the best model, you need the resources,” said Grimmesey. “We have not had the resources as a county to do this before. Now it’s mandated.”
But ITFC programs can save counties money, according to Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services Deputy Director Delfino Neira, once they are up and running.
Placing a child in a group home can generally cost between $7,000 and $10,000 a month, said Neira. That does not include any of the child’s behavioral health needs and other requirements. The county can pay a foster family agency, like Family Care Network, a special rate to train caregivers and provide increased support for the foster youth and families. The ITFC program will cost between approximately $4,090 and $5,300 a month per child, depending on the child’s needs, according to Neira. The contract with Family Care Network will cost social services up to $300,000 a year, with ADMHS paying up to $200,000 annually.
“There’s a consensus that this is a treatment of choice,” said Roberts. “Now we just need the families.”
Residents interested in learning more about Santa Barbara County’s new ITFC program can call (866) 781-3535 or visit FCNI.org.