California Foster Children with Disabilities Lawsuit

July 25, 2007

Legal action taken against the California Department of Social Services
by three nonprofit advocacy groups.

(San Francisco, CA – July 25, 2007) – A lawsuit filed in state court today in San Francisco charges state officials  with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and state anti-disability laws by refusing to allow foster children with disabilities to stay in foster care past their 18th birthday.

In California, foster youth are permitted to remain in foster care up until the age of 19, but only if the youth’s school or education program certifies that he or she is expected to graduate by his or her 19th birthday.  This is known as the “completion rule.”  Any youth who is not expected to graduate by the age of 19 loses his or her foster care funding at the age of 18.  These youth are often turned out of foster care with no place to live, and thus are denied the opportunity to continue to pursue their educations.

The suit, Leonard v. Wagner, charges that the state’s policy of cutting off foster care funding to children with disabilities under the completion rule violates state and federal disability laws.  The case was filed by the Public Interest Law Project of Oakland, the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles.

“The completion rule deprives foster children with disabilities, who often are behind in school because of their disabilities, the same opportunity that their non-disabled peers in foster care have to stay in care one more year,” said Angie Schwartz, lead attorney in the case and Staff Attorney at the Public Interest Law Project.  “Study after study demonstrates the problems children face when they age out of foster care, and the results are even worse for youth with disabilities.”

“The cruel result of the completion rule is that the youth with disabilities – who are the most vulnerable of all kids in foster care, and arguably the most in need of an extra year of stability and services – have to leave their foster homes and group homes on their 18th birthdays and are effectively made homeless,” said Corene Kendrick, Staff Attorney at the Youth Law Center.  “At least seven other states, including New York, Illinois, and Vermont, extend foster care benefits past the age of 18 for this group of youth.”

In 2002, the Western Center on Law and Poverty and other legal services programs won the case of Fry v. Saenz, when the state Court of Appeal held that the identical completion rule in the CalWORKs program violated federal disability laws, said Nu Usaha, Staff Attorney at WCLP. “Yet the State of California refuses to apply the Fry protections to children in foster care, despite repeated requests from advocates.”