Laura Tate was 15 when foster care moved her from San Francisco to a home some 40 miles east in the suburbs.
“At that time, I didn’t even know a Pittsburg existed in California,” Tate said.
Tate was born in SF and grew up between Haight-Ashbury and the Fillmore. She first entered the foster care system at 2 years old. As a teenager, she bounced around different foster homes in the city and relied on friends who would let her sleep over when she didn’t want to spend the night at her group home.
Tate was about to be torn away from everyone she had ever known.
“I was losing a community,” she said.
The day of the move, Tate recalled sitting silently as a staff member from her group home drove her into the far reaches of the East Bay. From the passenger seat, she studied the exit signs and bus numbers—details for her plotted escape back to San Francisco.
Her new foster parents were at a high school football game when Tate pulled into town, so they met in a parking lot, and moved Tate’s belongings from the van into the family’s car. Then the van left.
“It felt like you dropped me with these random people at this football game, and now I’m supposed to go home with them,” Tate said. “I felt like a piece of luggage, or an animal that was being shipped or transported.”
Tate is just one of hundreds of foster kids that San Francisco sent away from the city, according to data from SF’s Human Services Agency (HSA), which runs the county’s foster care. In fact, San Francisco has sent the majority of its foster kids to other counties every year for the past decade. The kids who are sent away are separated from their support network of family and friends and oftentimes forced to change schools. They're dropped into an unknown city while they’re still reeling from the transition of adjusting to a new home.
San Francisco sends away more foster youth than any county in California. In July 2022, San Francisco placed 65% of its foster kids elsewhere—almost double the state average of 33%, according to data from the UC Berkeley California Child Welfare Indicators Project.
San Francisco’s out-of-county placement rate steadily climbed in the last decade, even as the number of foster kids in its care fell dramatically—largely because of a series of policy changes that made removing kids from their parents a last resort.
Most youth sent away from SF end up with foster parents they’ve never met. In January 2022, over 60% of SF’s out-of-county placements were with people who had no blood relation to the child and who had no previous relationship with the family, according to the HSA data.
San Francisco has sent its foster kids across 32 counties, as far south as San Diego and as far north as Humboldt. While about 70% of kids stay in the Bay Area, over 100 kids have been sent outside the region, according to HSA data—and 74 of those kids were sent to live with people they didn’t know.
“Losing Everything at Once”
Faraway placement isn’t necessarily a bad thing if a kid ends up with a relative or family friend who wants to ultimately reunite the child with their parents, explained Erika Dirkse, a director at the San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates.
But it feels very different when San Francisco assigns children to foster parents they don’t know dozens of miles outside their home community, said Dirkse, whose organization links volunteer advocates with foster youth. It makes it hard for the child to stay in touch with family and friends.
“To be removed from a parent is a trauma,” Dirkse said. “To go and be placed with a care provider you’ve never met before is a trauma. And to be doing that in a whole new community that you’re unfamiliar with is another trauma.”
Leaving the county may also mean switching schools, which can have a profound impact on children. After all, for kids with otherwise unstable lives, school is often the one constant, said La Shelly Sparks, an administrator at Trinity Foster Family Services of the Bay Area, which California counties hire to recruit and train foster parents.
“That’s where they have their significant connections, often with teachers and friends,” Sparks said. When a kid has to leave their school, they may feel like they’re “losing everything at once,” she added.
Trent Rhorer, who oversees SF’s foster care system as head of the HSA, said he can’t generalize whether out-of-county placement is good or bad for children, noting that it depends on the situation. Placing kids with relatives is a top priority for the agency, he noted, and those family members often live outside San Francisco or the Bay Area as a whole.
However, whether placed in the Bay Area or beyond, most kids HSA placed are not living with a relative, according to data from the department.
Placing kids with strangers out-of-county can be overwhelming, Rhorer acknowledged. But he argued that the trauma has less to do with where a child ends up than the fact that they’ve been swept into a system that upends their lives.
“Being out-of-county in and of itself is not a trigger or a cue that the child isn't doing well,” Rhorer said. “That child may be doing well, may not be doing well, but it likely isn’t anything to do with the county that he or she is placed in.”
Even so, HSA prioritizes keeping San Francisco foster kids in the city, if no relative or family friend is available, Rhorer explained. HSA only looks farther afield for non-relative placements if it can’t find a place in the city.
A Shortage of Foster Homes
An HSA campaign launched in 2020 to recruit foster parents emphasized how sending children away is a loss for SF.
“We lose a little piece of San Francisco when foster kids are placed outside The City,” read the ads, which are still on the city’s website.
The campaign invoked the department’s aspiration of keeping San Francisco’s foster kids in the city. By HSA estimates, that would require 100 more foster homes. But in the two years since rolling out the campaign, it only recruited 54, HSA spokesperson Joe Molica said.
Those lagging numbers owe partly to bad timing, Rhorer explained, since the recruitment push came right before the pandemic. The shortage of foster parents persists to this day.
San Francisco simply has more foster kids than families to take them. That is largely driven by the unique demographics of the city, Rhorer said, like a higher-than-average share of people who don’t typically become foster parents, like senior citizens and single renters.
Cost is a major factor, too. Sparks, who trains and recruits foster parents, says San Francisco is the hardest place to find foster homes because it’s so dense and expensive. People have less space to spare in SF than their counterparts elsewhere. Many SF foster families she once worked with have joined the exodus to more affordable parts of the East Bay.
Compounding the cost of living is the low pay for parents who take on wards of the county. The statewide base rate that foster parents receive for each child is, at most, about $1,500 per month. San Francisco foster parents, like in other counties, can also get another $1,000 a month if the child has chronic medical or behavioral issues.
But there’s no cost-of-living pay adjustment for San Francisco’s foster parents, who support children in one of the most expensive places in the country.
“The foster care rate—and again, we don't set it, the state sets it—isn’t going to be enough, generally, to raise a kid in San Francisco,” Rhorer said.
When asked whether the department plans to do anything about the cost-of-living factor, Rhorer said HSA isn’t convinced that compensation is driving the shortage of foster parents.
Rhorer argues that San Francisco’s high out-of-county placement doesn’t necessarily make it an outlier and that its small geography makes it hard to measure against other counties.
“It’s almost like comparing apples to oranges,” Rhorer said.
But most geographically larger California counties have far more foster kids. Los Angeles, for example, counts about 191 foster youth per 100,000 people living in the county. San Francisco has just 69.
A New Life in the Suburbs
For Laura Tate, the move to Pittsburg was jarring.
San Francisco gave her so much to explore, and she’d often walk to the Ferry Building or pop in on the city’s endless rows of shops and restaurants. The most exciting place in Pittsburg, it seemed, was a coffee shop.
“I felt like I was in a weird little country town,” Tate said.
But her new foster parents, Kevin and Terrilyn Lassair, treated her like family. Over time, she formed close bonds with the Lassairs and their five children and lived with them until her high school graduation.
Today, the now-24-year-old lives in Bay Point, a smaller town next to Pittsburg, and works as a teaching assistant at an elementary school. Tate and her boyfriend expect their first child this winter. And the Lassairs still feel like family.
Looking back, she has mixed feelings about San Francisco sending her away all those years ago.
“I don’t agree with the way it happened at all,” Tate said. “But I can’t say I regret it happening because I ended up being with a family that changed my life and meeting a man that would also change my life and become the father of my first child.”
It’s a happy ending for Tate, even if it means another piece of San Francisco lost.
Noah Baustin can be reached at [email protected]