California's child welfare system is state supervised and county administered. Counties organize and deliver services, and the state monitors counties' compliance with federal and state legislation and regulations. The state also channels federal and state funding to counties. A county's funding allocation is based on it's caseload size. Funding is capped by the state, and counties must rely on their own revenue once state funding is exhausted. Counties are required to match state dollars to receive their full state allotment Some counties consistently under-match and do not receive their full allotments. Other counties, including Santa Clara, over-match their state allotment.
Over the last decade, like many other states, California experienced an enormous growth in its foster care population. The number of children in foster care doubled over a 10- to 12-year period. At that time, the state was hamstrung in its efforts to stem the flow of children into foster care because no resources were available for in-home services to prevent placement or reunify families. Since that time, California's child welfare system has recommitted itself to ensuring that children remain with their families whenever possible. The state's recommitment to maintaining families has materialized in recent policy changes.
The overall thrust of current child welfare policy in California is to encourage counties to provide strength-based, family-centered, and community-oriented services. Placement prevention is the primary focus, but whenever placement is unavoidable, state statutes require that children be placed in close proximity to their families' homes and within their local school districts. These policies are intended to facilitate family preservation and reunification. At the same time, child safety and permanency considerations continue to substantially influence placement decisions. In practice, the everyday philosophy is to seek the most permanent placement with preference given to relatives if, for safety reasons, the child must be removed from the home.
In order to implement state policies that emphasize prevention and reunification, California has adopted a continuum of care that encompasses four service categories -- Emergency Response, Family Maintenance, Family Reunification, and Permanent Placement. Most county child welfare agencies are organized around these four service categories, and every child in their care falls into one of them. In addition to offering a continuum of care, the state encourages county child welfare agencies to use family conferencing, family group decision-making, and concurrent planning to assist workers in assessing whether reunification is likely and making alternative permanency plans.