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'A Family to Be With' 

The foster care system battles geography amid increasing demand

George and Tiffany Strango holding their adopted children, Ellie and Joey. Even after adopting, the Strangos continue to keep their doors open for foster children.

Photo by T.William Wallin

George and Tiffany Strango holding their adopted children, Ellie and Joey. Even after adopting, the Strangos continue to keep their doors open for foster children.

Tiffany Strango's philosophy is to love all children who enter her home as if they are her own. In her Eureka house, children are not pieces of paper and beds are not numbers. They are people and sanctuaries, respectively. Tiffany Strango never had the overwhelming urge to birth children but she and her husband George have been mother and father to more than two dozen foster children over the last four years, including two they adopted. In the couple's living room hang 26 framed photos — one of each of the kids — which she says will hang forever.

Their house is full of energy. At any given time, the sounds of laughter and the pitter-patter of running feet fill the air. The living room is filled with toys, stuffed animals and, of course, picture frames. The couple tries to give each child equal attention and George flies the little ones around as if they were airplanes. Giggling ensues. It's a warm and comforting space for those placed in Humboldt County's foster care system.

Last year, the Strangos had five children in their home ranging in age from 3 to 15 and each of the kids went to a different school. Two of the children, Joey and Ellie, are adopted. The Strangos were fostering the other three. Four of the kids were enrolled in Eureka schools but the fifth attended McKinleyville High School. Getting them all to and from school each day was a two-hour affair possible only because George Strango worked from home and had a flexible schedule.

Part of the challenge was that Mr. J, the 15 year old they were fostering, was placed in the Strangos' care in Eureka because there wasn't a foster family available in McKinleyville. (Tiffany Strango asked that we refer to him as "Mr. J" for privacy reasons.) The situation isn't unique to Mr. J as Humboldt County has a shortage of foster care homes and many are reticent to take in teenagers. And in a rural county like Humboldt, that often means foster families face long commutes to get their kids to school, which can pose another barrier to finding placements.

"For people who are just looking to foster children and don't have someone in mind, they typically take young children and babies," says Alison Phongsavath, program manager for Humboldt County's Child Welfare Services. "[They typically don't] take teens or older youth."

CWS's goal when children are removed from their homes is to find relatives or people close to the families who will take them in. But when this isn't an option, the county turns to foster families like the Strangos.

"The biggest challenge of being in a rural area is the size of the county," says CWS Deputy Branch Director Jeri Scardina. "Services, schools, families and visitations mandated by the court between child and parent can be in various areas in our huge county."

This poses a problem, especially because studies have shown the importance of keeping children enrolled in the schools they had been attending before being removed from their homes, or their "schools of origin."

A study by The Stuart Foundation in 2014, "The Invisible Achievement Gap Part 2: How the Foster Care Experiences of California Public School Students Are Associated with Their Education Outcomes," found that 17 percent of California's foster youth were enrolled in at least three or more schools during their first year in the foster care system.

"Students in foster care were found to be an at-risk subgroup distinct from low-socioeconomic status and other at-risk student groups," the study states. "Relative to other at-risk student subgroups, students in foster care were more likely to change schools; to be diagnosed with a disability, particularly one of emotional disturbance; to be enrolled in nontraditional schools; to be at least a year older than the median age for their grade level; and to not participate in California's statewide testing program. Students in foster care also had notably lower rates of proficiency in English language, arts and mathematics; had the highest single-year dropout rates; and had the lowest graduation rates."

To address this problem, California passed Assembly Bill 490 in 2004. The law is intended to prevent youth in foster care like Mr. J from being forced to change schools unnecessarily, and ensures that if they do switch schools, their new school enrolls them and receives their records quickly. The removal of a child from his or her home is an inherently traumatic experience and changing schools can compound that.

"In those cases, we are required to work with the family and the school district and the care providers about what efforts we can do to maintain they stay at their school," Phongsavath says.

In a rural county with a shortage of foster families, this is a challenging endeavor and one that families and officials are working to navigate just as new legislation is changing how foster families are licensed throughout the state.

In 2017, the Legislature enacted the Resource Family Approval (RFA) Program, introducing "resource family" as the new encompassing term for foster families or parents. Under the program, everyone fostering a child — even if a family member — must be certified through the same process.

Phongsavath says there is now a single standard, whether for a matched home (those taking in a relative or a child with whom they have an existing relationship) or an unmatched one, like the Strangos. Previously, matched homes could be approved solely through a background check but with the new legislation, Phongsavath says now every family has to meet the same standards, go through the same trainings and all are eligible for the same resources and support.

Former CWS Program Manager Deb Engs says the legislation has greatly improved the way the foster care system operates. Engs says the program also offers more consistency, making every county in California operate the same. Even with this improvement, though, Engs acknowledges there still just aren't enough families like the Strangos in Humboldt County.

"We need more resource families," Engs says. "Child welfare has been some of the hardest work I've done, some of the most emotional work. I have a true fundamental belief every child here deserves a family to be with."

According to the Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE), there were 756 foster youth aged 0 to 18 in the county last school year. To be considered foster youth by foster education law, a child must be a dependent of the court. It doesn't matter whether the youth resides with a family member or a traditional foster family as long as the court has jurisdiction over the child, with a social worker and an attorney assigned to his or her case. (DHHS uses more stringent criteria to calculate the local foster care population and consequently reports a lower population total than HCOE.)

Statewide, roughly 0.5 percent of children are in foster care but that jumps to nearly 3 percent for Humboldt County children and the numbers appear to be trending in opposite directions. According to the California Department of Education, California has a total of 51,086 foster youth, a 22 percent decrease from 2014. But as the number of foster youth has declined for the state, numbers are increasing in Humboldt County, widening the gap between children needing placements and available homes.

There were 192 approved resource family homes as of July 25, according to CWS, but Phongsavath says this number is always changing and doesn't include homes that are private nonprofit foster family agencies. With 756 children in the foster care system, this means placements are in demand and, with most families wanting to foster babies and young children, there can be few options for older youth like Mr. J.

"The two issues are we don't have enough foster homes and no public transportation for foster kiddos and these problems definitely feed each other." Tiffany Strango says. "It's up to us to get them to school. It's a logistic nightmare. Schools start early."

The Strangos saw Humboldt County's need for foster families and kept fostering even after they adopted, which wasn't their original plan. But Mr. J was their first experience with having to get a child to school outside Eureka and it was a challenge.

The Strangos transportation schedule last year could be fairly described as hectic. George would drive Mr. J to McKinleyville for high school so he could make it to class by 8 a.m. Tiffany would drive three of the other kids, dropping one at the bus stop by 7:45 a.m., then Ellie at preschool, then another to middle school by 8:10, after which she'd go to work. George would then drive back from McKinleyville to pick up Joey, who has special needs, and drop him at a special day class at 11 a.m. Then they would all need to be picked up at 12:30 p.m., 1:30, 2, 2:40 and 3:15.

The Strangos began considering becoming foster parents in 2014 and hoped it would eventually lead to adoption. Tiffany Strango says she saw the need while working as a pediatric nurse in an intensive care unit in Bedside, Texas, where she "saw a lot of non-accidental accidents involving children." She was promoted from her nursing job in Texas and moved to Eureka in 2013, where she became regional director of clinical informatics at St. Joseph Health System. On her first site visit to Eureka she met George, who was 20 years older and had six children of his own. George, sporting black rimmed glasses and a short crew cut, worked in the hospital's IT department. They immediately hit it off, getting married in 2015. Within three months of becoming a foster family, they receive their first foster child.

"We started talking about creating a family and George talked about adoption, so I said to him, 'We could foster,'" Tiffany Strango says. "There are a lot of children in need of a loving and caring home because there are so many kiddos out there that need TLC. We got married in October and had our first baby in March."

Not long after their first foster child, they received Joey, their first adoption. Joey arrived at 10 days old because of drug exposure from his mother. Tiffany Strango says his mother told her, "You're the only mother Joey has ever known and I don't want to take that away from him, will you please adopt our son." She has since worked a program and is involved in the Strangos' lives. George Strango even walked her down the aisle when she got married.

"It's the best outcome," Tiffany Strango says.

Next came Ellie at 4 months old with feeding issues. She was placed with the Strangos because of Tiffany's nursing background. Tiffany Strango says Ellie craved stimulation and it was a real challenge to get her to keep food down.

"She was supposed to be with us for only six weeks," she says. "They had a plan B that didn't work and we adopted her. She is our humming bird. She is on until she sleeps."

Tiffany Strango says Ellie's energetic spirit draws Joey out his shell and helps him to be more social. She believes she and George were destined to be their parents and every day is a blessing, but she adds that the lack of foster families in the county puts a heavy burden on those willing to open up their homes.

"If we didn't have George working from home, transportation would be a big problem," Tiffany Strango says. "Essentially, this is his job. He's like our bus driver. If he worked outside the home full-time, then we would not be able to accommodate and we'd have to rely on some form of county transportation. There would be a huge population of kiddos we couldn't allow in our home and that would be one less home for these kids to be able to go."

George Strango's flexible work schedule was the sole reason they could keep Mr. J in his school of origin, even if it came at a price.

"Whether it be us or special transporter, Mr J. got tired of being in the car so long," Tiffany Strango says. "This is a systemic problem in which we don't have enough foster homes. Period."

Because of the transportation barrier, foster families like Heather and Scott Peugh are unable to accommodate older foster youth like Mr. J. as they live in Hydesville. Heather Peugh says transportation is a hindrance.

"That's why we only take younger kids now," she says. "Transportation is our main issue since we live in a rural area. Getting a kid to school in Eureka would prove too difficult."

As the president of Humboldt County Foster Family Association, Heather Peugh is a leading resource for foster families. After a year of being a foster parent, she felt compelled to get more involved because she wanted to see things change. She says that even after they adopted a set of sisters, Ariel and Aurora, they still continued to foster. In their six years of being a foster family, the Peughs have taken 31 children into their home.

"There is 100 percent a need for more foster families," Heather Peaugh says. "There's a need to take in all ages. It's important to have resource families in every part of Humboldt County, from the north to the south, because transportation is such an issue."

Commutes to school like Mr. J's are one of the factors discussed between foster youth coordinators in local school districts when deciding whether to keep a child in his or her school of origin.

"A stable education is priority in placement because everything in that child's life has been interrupted," says Leah Lamattina, the foster youth liaison coordinator for Eureka City Schools. "Unfortunately, there are not enough foster homes to support the need. If a child is removed from Arcata, that child's goal is to be able to hopefully be in the same school."

Humboldt County has 31 school districts and, because of Assembly Bill 490, each of them has a designated foster youth liaison. Spread through those 31 districts are a little more than 18,000 students in 88 schools, which is an unusually high number of schools for a population of our size. Lamattina's Eureka district is not only the largest in the county but also has the highest number of foster youth enrollment, as well as the largest homeless student population. Foster youth travel from as far as Rio Dell, Freshwater and Fortuna just to get to Lamattina's school.

"There's been a need for foster care families for over a decade and the number of young people in and out of a home situation is on the rise," Lamattina says. "Other large populated communities have private parties to help with transportation but we don't have those private parties."

Lamattina says this is a problem statewide but is especially acute in Humboldt County. Factors of isolation, generations of drug abuse and childhood trauma, high poverty and unemployment rates, a lack of access to medical and social services, overrepresentation of Indigenous youth and Humboldt County's above state average childhood trauma rates are all components that Lamattina says drive the numbers in the foster care system.

"Eureka has above state average foster and homeless youth, especially compared to communities our size," Lamattina says. "We don't have an effective public transportation system. We definitely could use more bus drivers and funds to foot the bill because transportation support in the district is very expensive."

Other areas of the state are taking proactive steps to address the transportation needs of foster children. San Diego has emerged as a possible model for other counties across the state on the issue after its office of education conducted a comprehensive needs assessment that looked at transportation, along with other issues. Several San Diego County school districts have now begun including transportation as a school stability resource in their Local Control and Accountability Plans. Other districts "consistently transport students across districts and have cost-sharing arrangements," according to an article by former Foster Youth Services Director Michelle Lustig. "Many districts are a part of a countywide transportation agreement that enables them to share or leverage their neighbor district's resources for an agreed-upon cost."

This is something Roger Golec, the foster and homeless youth coordinator for HCOE, says Humboldt County needs. But funding is a problem, says Golec, who works directly with Lamattina and all school liaisons. He says there is $25 million in the state school budget for grant funding to support foster education statewide but how Humboldt County allocates the portion of that money it receives is complicated by the number of districts.

One of the problems, Golec says, is Humboldt County is geographically one of the largest in the state and he has 31 school districts in line for funding. Golec says 60 percent of his time is spent just writing grants. Even with this problem, Golec has seen improvements from when he first began working in the education system. When he started 10 years ago as coordinator, he says he was the only employee and had limited funds. Now he says there are four and a half staff members and more funding to incorporate additional staff and data systems.

"The foster youth are suffering the most and what we do is support school stability and academic success," Golec says. "The foster youth are lagging behind their peers and the length the system has been goofed up is how long it will take to make noticeable strides."

One of Golec's job duties is to help implement legislation. Assembly Bill 337 is currently being considered by the California Legislature and, if passed, will provide schools with additional transportation funding and require counties to provide payments to foster families that "cover the cost of reasonable" transportation arrangements to keep children in their schools of origin. Both Golec and CWS support the bill.

Current funding for transportation is determined by a Local Control and Accountability Plan process, which is how San Diego is front-running its transportation program. Paula Evans, a Foster Care Program consultant for the California Department of Education (CDE), says California is a local control state, meaning local districts have discretionary funding that could go toward transporting foster youth to and from school. But funds are limited.

Calla Peltier-Olson, the youth organizer for the Humboldt County Transitional Age Youth Collabroation who is also a board member for California Mental Health Advocates for Children and Youth, works directly with foster and homeless youth to improve local systems and policy. She has worked with Golec since 2009 and says he has been crucial in improving both the foster care system and youth homeless services in Humboldt County.

"We just keep having more homeless young people who are chronically homeless." Peltier-Olson says. "A majority of those in extended foster youth have been homeless or couch surfing at least once in their time here."

Peltier-Olson attributes the rising trend of displaced youth in part to the investigation the California Attorney General's Office into Humboldt County's Child Welfare Services in 2016, although CWS states there is no correlation between the two and the number of youths in foster care was already increasing before the investigation and resulting settlement.

After the investigation, Humboldt County agreed to a systemwide reform of its reporting and investigative systems intended to better protect children from abuse and neglect. This investigation found CWS didn't have enough agents to follow up on abuse and neglect reports, which Peltier-Olson says was due to the lack of resources and a dire need for more professionals in the county. Some progress is being made, though, and staffing levels have increased. Under a newly implemented CWS 24-hour system, there are six social workers and one supervisor specifically assigned to emergency responses to reports of abuse on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with off-hour calls going to on-call staff.

DHHS spokesperson Christine Messinger says a number of provisions of the settlement agreement included and simply formalized things the county was already in the process of implementing.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy offers regular "progress reports" on the county's compliance under the settlement agreement with the state. For the most recent monitoring period, the report indicates DHHS, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and CWS are making progress on coming into compliance with the agreement. While noting that key improvements have been made by CWS regarding onsite training, the report also states that chronic staffing shortages at CWS are continuing to pose challenges.

But things are improving there, too. Messinger says CWS hired 29 social workers who started work last month.

Peltier-Olson says there has been some progress but transportation remains a difficult challenge, noting that's the most consistent feedback her organization receives.

"We are poorly equipped to meet the needs of foster youth and the mandate of the state," Peltier-Olson says. "It takes time to build trust with our most vulnerable population, homeless youth and break barriers. They have experienced so much trauma already in life."

If California's Assembly Bill 337 passes or the county were to adopt its own transportation plan, as San Diego did, then the youth Peltier-Olson works with would have access to reliable transportation, the Peughs would be able to foster school-aged youth and the Strangos could still take in foster kids without the burden of long daily commutes.

Even with the issue at hand, Heather Peugh says support has grown for the system since she began fostering in 2012. Specifically, she said there's better communication between DHHS and foster families, which makes navigating the system easier.

"We have seen, from top to bottom, a larger presence in the foster family," Heather Peugh says. "I think the county has done a good job with addressing issues within the foster care system."

While the number of youth in foster care continues to rise, Phongsavath says CWS uses multiple recruitment tools to find more families that are willing and able to foster. To help spread the word, staff created an informational video posted to the DHHS website that shows a realistic glimpse of what it means to be a foster parent in the area. CWS also attends events year-round, like the county fair and Pony Express Days, and regularly speaks to clubs and religious organizations.

"We believe that all of our efforts do reach families," Phongsavath says.

But many believe the most effective recruiting effort is simply word of mouth through foster families like the Strangos and Peughs, who continue to provide a safe space and stable environment for children displaced by traumatic events.

As for Mr. J, this year he is enrolled at a school in Eureka, making the lives of Tiffany and George Strango a little more manageable. Tiffany Strango had to speak with attorneys and have a judge sign off on changing Mr. J's school but she says Mr. J is doing great. He no longer has to spend two hours in a car every day just going to and from school.

"He is doing much better and happier in the Eureka school," Tiffany Strango says. "Before it was school and home and that was it, not much of a social life ... We are super excited for him."

Tiffany Strango says there's a need for balance when looking at keeping kids in their schools of origin and other aspects. Ultimately, she says, the focus always needs to be on the children and meeting their needs.

"If it isn't working and we are only keeping kids in school of origin because of law then I have an issue," she says. "But there isn't anything different the county could have done for Mr. J."

T.William Wallin is a senior at Humboldt State University majoring in journalism and minoring in Eastern religious studies. He is also a poet and freelance reporter.

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T.William Wallin

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