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Children Left Behind: California Foster Care System Challenged

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A homeless man sleeps in the doorway of a closed store in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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OAKLAND (KCBS) – California has 65,000 children in foster care, far more than any other state. And many of them end up homeless, unemployed or victims of human trafficking.

The state is working to improve the foster care system, but there are still glaring loopholes and not enough money to go around.

When looking at the success of the foster care system, it depends on whom you ask. “It is definitely broken and limping along,” said veteran social service provider John Casey, program director at Covenant House California in Oakland. But Trent Rhorer, head of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency disagrees. “Unquestionably, the system is better than it was 5-10 years ago. The data statewide speaks to that,” he said.

KCBS’ Doug Sovern Reports:

But the kids living in foster care have a different point of view. Brejon Fontenot spent years shuffling from one relative to another, from group homes to the street and back again

“I’ve been in a lot of foster homes. But something always went wrong,” she said.

The oldest of six children, Fontenot was removed from her mother’s care as a young girl in Stockton.

“She’s a drug addict. I believe she still is,” said Fontenot. “I don’t really talk to her as much. And I never really had a close relationship with my dad.”

Her grandmother kicked her out of the house at age 12, so she bounced from one foster home to another.

“When you’re in foster care, you always feel like it’s your fault,” she said. “That’s not a position anyone deserves to be in, especially when there’s no real love around you.”

Former foster children have surpassed veterans as the number one group in California’s homeless shelters. 40 percent of foster kids wind up on the street or worse said Earl Jacobs with Healthy Oakland and the Alameda County Faith Initiative.

“60-70 percent of the inmates in San Quentin can tell you all about group homes or the foster care system,” he said.

Complete Coverage: Doug Sovern’s Children Left Behind Series

Jacobs said the kids come in scarred and the system may house them, but it rarely helps them heal.

“Think about what some of these kids have witnessed throughout their lives at a very early age,” Jacobs said. “Drug abuse, domestic violence, maybe killings, maybe they participated. Maybe they were victims of some form of molestation.”

Cut loose from foster care at 18, Brejon finally found a shelter and support a year ago at Covenant House California in Oakland. Now, she has a job at Macy’s.

But the unemployment rate among former foster youth ages 18 to 24 is 50 percent, said Alameda County Juvenile Justice commissioner Sokhom Mao, the son of Cambodian refugees and a former foster child himself.

“The foster care system in the state of California is a work in progress,” he said. “The state needs to do a lot more. We are on the right step to improving the foster care system but I don’t think the state really understands what foster care really needs.”

Part of the problem is how little time counties have to find somewhere for kids to go when they come into the system, the focus of Part 2 of KCBS’ weeklong series on Tuesday.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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