In foster care, family comes in all shapes and sizes. Four years ago, when Marcy Valenzuela was only 24, she decided to take in two of her eight siblings. For years, the nine Valenzuela children had been in and out of foster care, returning to their parents when mom and dad sobered up, only to re-enter the system when the parents relapsed again. Today, the two youngest siblings – 13-year-old Michael and 17-year-old Flo – still call Valenzuela’s two-bedroom townhouse in suburban Whittier home.
“I got Michael when he was 10, and he has grown with me,” Marcy said. “But, it’s just really hard; they are still living the foster care experience. Just because they have stability–which is great and all–they are still going through that trauma.”
The Valenzuela family’s story touches on all the types of places where children removed from their biological parents wind up. Marcy, who entered foster care herself as a drug-exposed infant, spent most of her life in group homes. Michael was placed in a foster home, which he says he loved, but ultimately it was the pull of family that brought him back with his older sister. The brother and sister lived in foster homes until Marcy was able to take them in.
As for Marcy, in 2012 when her parents both landed in jail, the three youngest children had nowhere to go. Instead of going to foster care, Marcy decided to step up and take them in. Despite her living in a one-bedroom apartment in South Los Angeles at the time, DCFS let the two girls move in with her. Michael, the youngest, went to live in a foster home. It would be a year later before he would be reunited with his sisters, something that weighed on him heavily. By the end of his stay with foster parents who he really loved, he says he “was done.”
“I wanted to go back home to just get it over with it so I wouldn’t have to deal with foster care anymore,” Michael said. “I kind of went into shut-down mode where I was not really in my right head. I was just trying to detach before I had to really detach. So during the last three months I lived with the foster family, I just gave up on trying to fit into the family. That way when I left, it was really simple.”
Marcy explained why she decided to compromise so much to change from sister to mother overnight.
“We don’t even feel at our house––our parents’ house––that we could just show up at any time,” Marcy said. For her and her eight siblings, including Flo and Michael, home was a foreign concept.
Now, with her siblings under the same roof, she strives for that elusive feeling of home.
“Here, they will never have to worry about ‘where are we going for any holiday?’” she said. “Like this is truly home. And if you talk to them on their own, they will say the same thing. We truly created that. Yes, they are my brother and sister, but I truly in my heart feel like these are my kids. I feel like we created a family where you don’t have to question whether or not you’re loved, and if you are accepted.”
Inasmuch, Marcy, Flo and Michael have created something like the average family. It is a hot afternoon in Marcy’s Whittier townhouse. Michael is heading to the Boys and Girls Club. He leans in to kiss his big sister on the cheek.
“You are sweaty, he says. No, that’s you buddy,” she says. Marcy then tells him to take his homework with him. And for a moment, this sister is a mom like any other.
Marcy’s story speaks to the importance of affording children the best possible placements while in foster care. For Michael, a great foster home was ultimately not what he wanted, instead choosing to live with his sister was.
The Reality For Sister Moms, Like Marcy, Who Become Kinship Care Givers
For years now, relative caregivers have been given fewer resources, in comparison to traditional foster families. Children placed in foster care–whether it’s in a foster home, kinship care situation or group home–have the broadest array of support possible. There are many ways to get involved, such as helping with family visits and advocating for caregivers, like Marcy.
Many foster youth face a combination of living in both foster home and kinship care placements. Recent reports show that up to 3,680 foster youth live in congregate care facilities, and often times these facilities are used for youth who are hard to place or have extra needs. As of April 2016, there were nearly 62,000 children and youth living in foster care, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, housed at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. The primary options for foster youth in Southern California are to live are with kin, in non-relative foster care homes or in group homes. Nearly 22,000 youth are placed with family. However, more than 21,000 are placed in non-relative foster homes.
California is engaging in sweeping reform to its foster care system. That change is predicated on the idea of moving children out of institutional facilities in favor of more family-like settings. In this changing world order, placing foster children with kin like Marcy will be critically important. When children enter foster care in California, roughly 35 percent will end up living with a relative. Marcy’s personal story helps demonstrates the importance of relative caregivers in foster care.
Advocates have long argued that the system, relies too heavily on such settings. In January of 2017, California will start implementing a sweeping reform, dubbed Congregate Care Reform, to move children out of group homes to relative and non-relative foster homes. The Alliance for Children’s Rights, an agency that provides legal counsel to many Los Angeles foster youth and advocates for policy change, has been on the front lines of a years-long battle to better support relative caregivers. Angie Schwartz, who serves as the Alliance’s policy program director and sees relatives as an integral part of foster care, has spearheaded much of that work.
“What we know about our kin families from many studies is that foster youth are much more likely to be placed with their entire sibling group, and have better connections with their community and bio parents,” Schwartz said. “They do better in school, and they have less trauma associated with being in foster care.”
Yet despite these favorable outcomes, kin have been historically underserved by California’s foster care system. Until January of 2015, when the state offered funds to all 58 counties to boost kinship foster care payments, counties often paid relative caregivers less money than non-relative foster parents. Los Angeles County is home to the U.S.’ largest child-welfare system. Here, declining numbers of children in foster care have coincided with an increasingly limited supply of places to put the children who remain in the system.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and data available through the Child Welfare Indicators Project, the numbers of children entering care have ticked upward, while the downward trend in beds available has continued.DCFS’ 2013-14 biennial report illustrates a steady decrease in the department’s total supply of beds in foster homes, as well as in the number of spots available in group homes and in private foster family agencies.
From 2000 to 2013, the number of children in out-of-home care decreased by 46 percent, from 38,273 to 20,629. During the same period, the supply of foster beds decreased by 58 percent, from 26,895 to 11,362, according to the report. As of 2016, the numbers of children entering care had started ticking upward, while the downward trend in beds available continued. The margin of available foster homes is becoming increasingly thin, making the need for finding and maintaining family placements like Marcy’s critically important. In January 2017 California will begin to pay relative caregivers, like Marcy, the same amount as traditional foster parents as part of Congregate Care Reform, which is aimed at reducing the system’s use of group homes.
“California is treating relatives as partners,” Schwartz of the Alliance said. “That is what they need to do, because our relatives are our greatest resource in family placement.”