outline of family

How USC researchers helped create a $31 million program for foster families

Jacquelyn McCroskey co-directs the Children’s Data Network, which teams with public agencies and others to help youngsters

October 02, 2017 USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work staff

When the Emergency Child Care Bridge Program goes into effect in January, foster families in California will be receiving much-needed new financial assistance — and research by USC social work faculty played a part in getting that done.

California Gov. Jerry Brown approved the new funding when he signed the state’s budget into law earlier this year. The $31 million Emergency Child Care Bridge will provide six-month emergency child care vouchers to foster care resource families caring for children ages 0 to 5. The program helps fill a large gap in California’s current subsidized child care system and supports both relatives taking care of a child and unrelated foster parents. It also funds navigators to help social workers and families find long-term child care, trauma-informed training for child care providers and support for parenting youth in the child welfare system.

Although Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others have long recognized the need for a bridge program, California legislators have not backed funding for this endeavor in the past two legislative sessions, in part because the two systems don’t share information or collaborate well.

That’s where Jacquelyn McCroskey, the John Milner Professor of Child Welfare at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and co-director of the Children’s Data Network (CDN), came in. She explained how CDN helped bridge the gap, linking administrative data across systems and providing information on children known to both.

California’s foster care predicament

The genesis of the program rests with California’s growing foster care dilemma. Specifically, the state’s social services agencies are having an especially difficult time recruiting resource families willing to care for young children at the point of a crisis when children are removed from their homes. In the current economy, more adults work or go to school full-time to keep up with the state’s high housing costs. This situation may be tenable when foster children are old enough to attend public schools, but almost a third are too young for school, and help with child care is essential.

Unfortunately, child care is expensive — the average cost for an infant or toddler in a child care center in California is over $1,000 per month. Resource families receive monthly stipends for children staying in their homes, but those stipends rarely cover the basic costs associated with feeding, housing and caring for a child, much less cover the cost of child care.

California’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) subsidy programs offer a key source of support for eligible families, but these programs are hard to find and difficult to navigate. Many families wait for months or years on program waiting lists, leaving them wondering how and when they will be able to get back to work. In the immediate wake of a new placement, many foster parents must take sick leave or personal days until they can find affordable child care.

Without adequate support, resource families have no incentive to accept younger children. In fact, roughly 25 percent of foster care placement denials result from a lack of child care.

We need resource families to step up for young children.

Jacquelyn McCroskey

“It creates this push-and-shove,” McCroskey said. “We need resource families to step up for young children, and yet it’s challenging for them to do so because our child care system isn’t very responsive to their needs.”

How USC used data to influence policy

McCroskey has long been interested in improving the lives of California’s most vulnerable young people. Under her and co-director Emily Putnam-Hornstein’s direction, CDN has demonstrated the value of linked administrative data in connecting the dots between multiple child and family service systems.

Ultimately, CDN’s research on the foster care system and early education helped decision makers in both systems understand the importance of a “bridge” for families who care for these vulnerable children, and informed the policy deliberations that ushered the Emergency Child Care Bridge program through the California legislature and into law.

CDN’s critical insight was just how disconnected the different family service systems can be from one another, even when they are serving the same children, families and communities. For instance, the California Department of Social Services, which places foster children, historically has not had access to data collected by the Department of Education on subsidized child care, and vice versa. Without the ability to cross-reference between departments, it’s hard to understand where the barriers and challenges really are, and as a result, children fall through the cracks.

For example, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services might struggle to place a 3-year-old in foster care due to child care concerns, not knowing that the child had previously been enrolled with a subsidized ECE provider that might be willing to help; or, the ECE provider might remove children from their program when they are placed in out-of-home care, even if the placement is with a grandmother who lives just a few blocks away.

CDN’s research found that almost 30 percent of young children in subsidized child care programs in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys were also known to Department of Children and Family Services during the same time frame. This was particularly striking because many of the child care providers believed that they served a different group of families who were “working poor” but not system-involved.

To share these findings, CDN and its partner, the Child Care Resource Center, published three policy papers and presented them at policy forums in Los Angeles and Sacramento. They used these papers to demonstrate that linking child welfare and ECE data could not only create a more accurate picture of government funding, but could also illuminate blind spots that kept systems from collaborating effectively and encourage more resource families to accept young children.

“Nobody had thought to pose these kinds of questions before,” McCroskey said. “By linking administrative data, we give agencies the perspective they need to provide better services for children on the county, state and national levels.”