D. Heimpel

Daniel Heimpel's life as a journalist

Posts Tagged ‘California

You Have to Like to Fight

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For 1,400 former foster youth it is either that or homelessness.

“This is a fight,” says California Assembly member Jim Beall in his Sacramento office. Two former foster youth and four transitional housing workers sit on long couches pushed against the wall. Today, they are in the Capitol Building, pleading for a program that gives thousands of California former foster youth the stable start to adulthood that many of their parented-peers blithely expect.

Beall, a bear of man, levels his eye on a 19-year-old named Daniel, who lives in one of California’s state-funded Transitional Housing Programs (THP-Plus) in Fresno.

“You have got to be a fighter, and you have to like to fight,” Beall says, driving home the sentiment that has been brewing in former foster youth, service providers and advocates up and down the state ever since Governor Schwarzenegger put the entire $35.7 million THP-Plus budget on the chopping block back in January.

Since the mere utterance that the Governor would dare consider cutting the program, which would force 1,400 youth onto the street,  a steady hum of media and activist activity has grown and was vented at the state capital Tuesday March 2nd.

THP-Plus, which provides transitional housing for a fraction of the 4,000-5,000 California foster youth who “age out” of the system every year, interested me because it ties into the national movement within Child Welfare calling for the extension of care to 21. This shift in foster care policy is embodied in federal law as a key provision of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. In the context of Fostering Media Connections, the row over THP-Plus provided an opportunity to test my concept of driving public will through media coverage.

Beyond this conceptual challenge, I know the program well. It provides 24 months of subsidized housing for former foster youth between the ages of 18-24. Participants pay an increasing “rent” which is saved for them upon completion of the program. Establish in 2001, THP-Plus was part of a vanguard of programs around the country that were based on ample research pointing to the fiscal and moral responsibility that we as a society have in ensuring that youth transition from foster care to adulthood successfully.  That Schwarzenegger would hint at eliminating the program, after child welfare in California had already been purged of $80 million in the current budget, was beyond cynical; it was absurd. Shutting the program down and spilling 1,400 youth onto the streets makes no fiscal sense. THP-Plus costs roughly $25,000 a year per participant. Jail costs upwards of $55,000. Emergency rooms, homeless shelters and a cohort of youth that grow into adults who spend their lives on public assistance as opposed to 24 months aren’t free either.

So, I joined Amy Lemley of the John Burton Foundation in running fort-nightly press team meetings.  A dozen or more THP-Plus service providers would dial in to conference calls where we would discuss media strategy. We developed materials for Op-Eds and short news pitches aimed at local media. But the real catalyst for momentum came, as it always does, from the youths themselves.

Suahmirs Rivera, a 19-year-old native of Honduras who feared being homeless if the Governor’s cut came to fruition, shared his painful story with Channel 10 News in San Diego. Soon after, he and I spoke. His candor in telling his story of being trafficked to the United States, forced into prostitution and bounced through the foster care system impressed me.

I wasn’t alone. Rivera’s story was so riveting that producers from Good Morning America contacted him up and came close to putting him on air. Understanding that the Governor would have been compelled to reconsider cutting THP-Plus if Rivera had a chance to speak on the national stage, I tried to drive a viral onslaught of emails to persuade ABC to let him on.  It was a shot in the dark, and has yet to yield the result Rivera, 1,400 former foster youth, an army of advocates and I want.

But the press team’s efforts were paying off with Op-Eds in San Luis Obispo, Merced and the Contra Costa Times.

Simultaneously Lemley, Michele Byrnes and Simone Tureck of the John Burton Foundation were planning a full onslaught on Sacramento’s Capitol building. Tureck had organized 40 or more meetings with THP-Plus providers, former foster youth living in those programs and elected officials and their staffs about the dangers of a cut.

One the eve of the Capitol siege, KPIX, CBS’ Bay Area affiliate, ran an excellent television piece about how the cuts would affect a young former foster youth and her baby son. The story was born from a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by Beth Fraker of Generations-Together who had organized the entire shoot.

Then Tuesday came. The marble floors of the Capitol clapped to the sounds of dozens of former foster youth and THP-Plus service providers darting from office to office. The day was punctuated with a press conference in a crowded committee room. The main attraction: Suahmirs Rivera, who again told his heartbreaking story and implored the governor not to cut THP-Plus because, “I don’t want to be homeless.”

ABC’s Nanette Miranda filed a story about the possible cuts, which aired on ABC affiliates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno and Sacramento. The Davis Enterprise ran a story; Univision interviewed Rivera in the hall outside the news conference and radio station KFBK sent a reporter to the event.

After, I spent the afternoon sitting in on the meetings with electeds. In one, a THP-Plus participant named Jeannette broke down in tears while telling California Director of Finance Ana Matosantos how the program afforded her child the stability she never had while growing up in foster care. In another meeting a young man named Daniel told Assembly Member Jerry Hill what it was like to have one place to call home after being bounced through more group homes then he could count on two hands.

This all struck me as uniquely awful, a true portrait of desperation. These young people, who had endured so much, were literally crying in front of those with the power to either kick them out of their homes or let them stay. The tears and quivering voices were not a tactic of persuasion, but rather the visceral expression of fear.

Still,  THP-Plus remains on the Governor’s trigger list.

Assembly Member Beall leans back in his chair and paints the world as it is. “There are some people who don’t care one bit about this,” he says. “They don’t care.”

But, for Daniel and Jeanette, who had spent the day fighting for their futures,  the words that they had been waiting to hear finally came. “Think I’ll vote for a budget that cuts this out?” Beall says. “Hell no.”

Until the Governor says the same thing, there are 1,400 former foster youth who are willing to fight. The other option is just too scary.


GMA Call to Action on Behalf of 1,400 Former Foster Kids

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This blog that I wrote for the Huffington Post includes a very novel call to action. In it I summarize the incredible life story of 19-year-old Suahmirs Rivera. Rivera was trafficked to the United States from Honduras at 16, was forced into prostitution and ended up in foster care. Now he lives in a Transitional Housing program that Governor Schwarzenegger is threatening to eliminate. Elimination of THP-Plus would make 1,400 former foster youth homeless.

Rivera’s message is clear: that he is willing to tell his story to save the program. Please read the blog and then send a note to Good Morning America. The show had contacted Rivera about being a guest, but the segment fell through.

I figure if enough people bombard GMA with emails, Rivera may have his chance to speak. And if a young man like him can tell his story on national TV, there is a good chance the Governor may think twice about casting 1,400 former foster youth like Rivera out into the street.

THP-Plus among other things on the Radio

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This morning I had the chance to discuss foster care policy in California with Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson. Peterson is rigidly conservative and opposed to almost anything government run.

I tried to explain the need for foster care and increased funding for it. Unfortunately, until there are no longer neglectful or abusive parents, there will need to be a system to provide safety and security for their children. So until that day comes, I say front-load the system.

To listen you will have to go to the Jesse Peterson Radio Show page on podcast alley and upload the podcast from “16 FEB 2010. Big Mamma’s House Hour 1: CALIFORNIA UPDATE: DANIEL HEIMPEL”

The LA Times Follows on Kin-GAP Coverage

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December 30th’s Los Angeles Times features an editorial calling for the withdrawal of ACF guidelines, which preclude existing subsidized guardianship programs from being eligible for new federal funds freed by the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Opportunities Act of 2008. This is the third major publication to describe this situation and is another step towards seeing the guidance rescinded, which will be a boon to tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of foster kids across the country.

Momentum on Kin-GAP guidance

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On Dec. 14th I wrote a story about how the Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) was engaged in a game of “chicken” with California’s Department of Social Services (CDSS).

The issue: ACF guidance that excludes state-run foster care administrations from accessing federal matching funds for kids who were already in subsidized guardianship programs before the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions act of 2008. Fostering Connections provides federal dollars for states that start subsidized or kinship guardianship programs, wherein family members take in kin and receive foster care payments. The problem is that according to the ACF guidance: states can only access the money “prospectively,” meaning that the 27 states including California that have preexisting Kin Care programs can’t draw down federal funds for the tens of thousands of kids already in subsidized care.

So, CDSS is threatening to move kids back into care and out again to make them eligible for federal funds. While I understand why the ACF guidance is written as such, I argue in this piece for the Huffington Post, that rescinding the guidance is a huge opportunity to speed Fostering Connections’ implementation across the country.

Since my story appeared on Dec. 14th, I have been peppering the editorial departments of newspapers up and down the state. So far the San Francisco Chronicle has followed with an editorial on Dec. 21. I have been told that other editorials will follow.

Further, on Dec 18th Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) sent a letter signed by 31 California members of Congress to have the guidance rescinded:Kin-GAP CA Delegation Final

Slowly but surely momentum is building to have this guidance rescinded, which will pave the way for the sweeping implementation of Fostering Connections that foster kids so desperately need.

The Price of a Sentence – Newsweek

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Please read the following story, which appears on Newsweek.com.

Over the last two weeks I started hearing some chatter from California advocates and administrators about the Golden State’s plans to recoup $60 million from the Federal Government in foster care payment.

In 2008, Congress passed, and Bush signed, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increased Adoptions Act. One of the laws most notable provisions was the extension of foster care to age 21. Another was federal funding for subsidized guardianship: payments to kin who take care of relatives that would otherwise end up in the foster care system.

This is where things get crazy. In the regulations given out at the end of Bush’s tenure, a stipulation was written in that states could only get funds for subsidized guardianship after the date of Fostering Connections being passed, Oct. 2008. In a state like CA and 26 others and the District of Columbia, which already have subsidized guardianship programs, this one sentence means that all the kids in kin care before that date are ineligible. In CA that means $60 million annually.

California is so desperate for that money that Child Protective Services is actually serious about moving kids who are in kin care back into straight foster care and then back out their family so that those kids are eligible for the Federal IVE funds. This would likely be a paper move, but disruptive none the less. Because of this one sentence it is fiscally responsible for California to go through this enormous task of moving kids back into the system just so that they can be eligible for funds. Further, in CA, where the budget is buckling the state is planning to use that $60 million to pay for legislation that would extend care to 21.

So the shining provision of Fostering Connections, extension of care, is in jeopardy all because of one sentence in the regulations.

Now, some members of congress are mobilizing to have those regulations change. The next phase will be their letters to Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families Assistant Secretary Carmen Nazario. The guidance is non-binding, so if enough pressure is applied Nazario could rescind it. That would free up hundreds of millions of federal dollars across 27 states and better the lives of tens if not hundreds of thousands of foster kids.

With one sixth of the nation’s foster care population in California, what happens there sets the tone for the nation. If the guidelines are changed and the $60 million flows into the Golden State, then it has a real viable chance at extending foster care to age 21 despite the buckling budget. That will be a catalyst for sweeping implementation of the Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 – the most robust foster care reform of the past decade if not generation.

If you want to get involved the best thing would be to write to your Senator or Congressional Representative asking them to demand the guidance be rescinded.

Written by dheimpel

December 15, 2009 at 8:17 pm

Social Worker Tuition and California Prisons

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In this blog on the Huffington Post, I question how wise it is to increase fees for students of social work when they are already paid very little for the extremely important job they do. Unfortunately students of social work at both UC Berkeley and UCLA will have to pay increased tuitions – one bad fiscal choice among many cropping up in this time of prolonged budgetary stress.

Just this week I visited L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services, where the Independent Living Division (ILP) has seen the $1.4 million it used to receive from the State for a stipend for emancipated foster youth completely cut from their budget.  Rhelda Shabazz, DCFS’ Emancipation Division Chief, was livid about what the cut would mean. She held out a sheet with the entire ILP budget of $13 million and pointed out how her department would make up the 10% loss. DCFS was being forced to cut stipends for former foster youth’s: tuition, books & supplies, exams, clothing, scholastic and vocational administrative fees, apartment and dorm security deposits and transportation. All the small, huge things that can make the difference between a motivated young person making it and that same young person not having a fair chance to.

And when young people don’t make it, it is not only them who pay with time spent in prison, on the streets or under a pervasive malaise; it us as a society who pays the monetary bill of that failure and the moral toll of knowing that we let it happen.

Written by dheimpel

November 27, 2009 at 6:24 pm