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Social Workers, Foster Services on the Chopping Block

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Holding hands.

The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on dozens of layoffs affecting foster children and some public health services.

"Hello Kevin, hi. How are you today?" asks Judge Katherine Lucero in a San Jose courtroom. "Tell me how things are going."

"Everything is going good. I graduated my parenting class this Saturday," replies Kevin. [Judge Lucero requested his last name not be used.]

A team of social workers, lawyers and therapists are present to review Kevin's case. He's come regularly for the last seven months as he works to stay off the drugs that landed him here.

"Kevin has really been just so dedicated and followed all of our direction, and done everything in his case plan since released in October," says Judge Lucero.

Kevin's goal, like that of every parent appearing before this judge is to get clean and be reunited with a child -- in his case the six year old he'd raised until a drug arrest last year.

"It was horrible. It was like the end of the world [when] they took my son. I kinda went off the deep end, and continued to get high, and ended up going back to jail," says Kevin.

After his court appearance Kevin tells his story in a nearby waiting room. He says after his last jail stint he accepted his problem and what he had to do to fix it.

"I've been blessed with a good social worker, and she tells me what I need to do and I do it. And if I call her she calls right back. It's fantastic."

What he needs to do every week is take drug tests, attend parenting and domestic violence classes, go to narcotics anonymous meetings and make regular court appearances. In return, Kevin also gets hour-long, supervised visits with his son.

Today, one-third of the frontline social workers who supervise those visits are slated for cuts.

Court social worker Sarah Meendering says she's worried families won't have as much support if the cuts go through. "What we're anticipating is the quality of service that each case-carrying social worker will be able to provide will be decreased, because we'll be stretched out across a lot of different fields, and ultimately the kids will be the ones hurting from this," says Meendering.

The cuts could also affect how long the children stay in the system and how much help they get when they leave. Hector SanRoman, a social worker in a department slated for elimination called Family Finding, says, "My unit job was to find relatives as soon as possible, so our goal was not to have a child in foster care system no longer than needed."

SanRoman says when a child would enter or exit the program seemingly all alone, he and four others were trained to research the family. He says he deals with about 30 cases a month, and has a few weeks to find connections.

"I have many experiences where I find relatives in Mexico or Honduras, or I found relatives in Germany. And when we make the connection, sometimes it is over the phone. It is incredible. Because we know it is going to be a lifelong connection. And for this foster youth, it is gold," says SanRoman.

Santa Clara's county executive, Jeff Smith, says nobody -- himself included -- likes the idea of the cuts.

"If we could get more money from someplace we'd be happy to rescind the layoff notices," he says.

Smith says the county has cut their budget 10 years in a row, but has largely been able to spare services and jobs. Smith says the state drives funding for the foster care system, and when former Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed $1 billion last October, it left the county with few options.

"If that program is defunded at the state level, then there's really no significant choice for the county to continue the service, because there's no funding source for it, and the general fund is really at this point tapped out," says Smith.

Santa Clara supervisors are planning to cut 84 positions in social services, and 34 hospital jobs at Valley Medical Center. County officials say two-thirds of the workers will be transferred to other positions, though some at lesser pay.

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