Foster flub

California is the only state to penalize relatives who take in foster kids

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald is the adopted mother of (from left) Jasmine and legal guardian of grandnephews Jeremiah and Malachi. She’s receives less state aid because she’s related to the boys.

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald is the adopted mother of (from left) Jasmine and legal guardian of grandnephews Jeremiah and Malachi. She’s receives less state aid because she’s related to the boys.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

From inside the tunnel slide of a south Davis park, 4-year-old Jasmine belts a scream that could rouse the dead.

Rather than stiffen with parental concern, the child’s adopted mother calmly wipes the dirt-speckled hands of her 2-year-old grandnephew, Jeremiah, and smiles. “That’s her happy scream,” Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald explains. “I’ve learned to tell the difference.”

Escamilla-Greenwald and husband David Greenwald, editor of the Davis Vanguard, are just two of the thousands of foster-care providers in California and are intimately attuned to a bizarre quirk in the system:

Foster children who are taken in by relatives generally receive a fraction of the aid they would get if placed with complete strangers—nearly $500 less a month per child in most cases.

California is the only state in the union where this disparity exists, which has its roots in a not-so-grand national bargain. When former President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress hammered through welfare reform back in 1996, they included a stipulation: The federal government wouldn’t pay foster-care benefits if the households the kids were removed from had incomes above the federal poverty level—as it stood 18 years ago.

To put that in context, a family of four making more than $16,000 a year today wouldn’t qualify, says the Alliance for Children’s Rights’ Reed Connell.

For foster children who aren’t federally eligible but live with relatives, every state but California has coughed up the difference. A whopping 36 percent of California’s foster children stay with extended family, nearly 21,000 kids in all.

Here in Sacramento County, approximately 25 percent of the 2,800 children who are dependents of the juvenille court live with relatives.

Up to one-half of familial providers are ineligible under federal law, a figure that increases as inflation leaves 1996 further behind. But related caretakers are eligible for CalWORKs, which used to pay relatives the same before massive budget cuts and unaddressed inflation left it reeling.

By way of example: The state pays $820 a month to a nonrelative caretaker of a 15-year-old foster child—or what UC Davis determined to be the minimum cost of caring for a foster child with no special needs—but only $351 a month to a relative provider through CalWORKs.

Additionally, signing up for the program is an arduous process that often requires the help of an attorney, Connell says.

It’s this way even though child-welfare experts say foster kids living with kin experience more stability, fewer placement changes and more contact with biological parents and siblings.

“We step up because we want to help kids stay with their families,” says Escamilla-Greenwald, who receives no financial support for Jasmine, Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s older brother, 10-year-old Malachi.

Connell’s organization and other child-advocacy groups are pushing for a legislative fix that would pay all foster caregivers the same, and also give them equal access to additional benefits for children with special needs, another loophole in the state system. But because this is California’s first budget surplus in a while, Connell acknowledges there are other worthy causes angling for attention.

Alliance’s “fall-back position” is Assembly Bill 1882, which would make it easier for relative caregivers to sign up for CalWORKs, but wouldn’t do anything to address the disparity in payments.

Connell is guardedly hopeful of a positive resolution. “We’ve got a lot of ground stir,” he says.

The Greenwalds are luckier than most relative caretakers, who tend to be older, in poorer health and make less money than nonrelative providers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tight months, especially with Jeremiah receiving speech therapy and the two older children getting involved in after-school activities.

On this overcast day, Escamilla-Greenwald and her young charges look like any other family. As Jeremiah scales a white ladder that curves into a vicious hump at its peak, “Aunt Cessi” calls out and makes her way to rescue the little fella.

“No, Mom!” Jasmine protests. “He can do it. Watch.”

Laughing, Escamilla-Greenwald positions herself under Jermiah’s feet. He trembles with sudden fear on the last rung. “You can do it, you can do it,” Escamilla-Greenwald coos, stabilizing his legs.

It takes a few fraught moments, but Jeremiah finally plants himself on solid ground. Then he hops in triumph.