Ben Romo: Welcome to Amy Krueger, deputy director of adult and children services at the Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services. Not many of us understand how all the pieces fit together. What exactly do you do?

Amy Krueger: Protective services for children, adults and the disabled includes our programs to investigate and respond to allegations of abuse or neglect of children (Child Welfare Services) and seniors or dependent adults (Adult Protective Services), our In-Home Supportive Services program for seniors or disabled adults who need help in order to stay safely in their homes, and the Adult and Aging and KIDS Networks that coordinate programs and services that impact the well-being of children, seniors and individuals with disabilities.

We’re a part of the Department of Social Services, which also provides safety-net programs like health-care coverage through Medi-Cal or Covered California; financial assistance through CalWORKs, including subsidized child care; and CalFresh food supplementation.

We also connect our clients out to a network of partner programs and agencies.

BR: At First 5 Santa Barbara County, our goal is to support these types of networks to ensure kids are safe, healthy and developing. Since we’re approaching April and National Child Abuse Prevention Month, tell us more about the Front Porch Program.

AK: Each year we receive approximately 4,800 referrals (reports) alleging child abuse and/or neglect. In 2015, 5,534 children had allegations and 531 (11 percent) were found to be substantiated.

These numbers are relatively low, partially because Child Welfare Services (CWS) of Santa Barbara County adopted a new model in 2005 called Front Porch. The program offers a broader set of options for working with families at the first signs of trouble, to help support families that are in need — and before further problems develop.

BR: The goal being to keep families “on the front porch” through supportive services, rather than having them enter “the system.”

AK: Yes! Social workers and partner agencies in the community work with the roughly 1,000 referred families each year to engage them in finding solutions and to provide focused services so that families will be empowered and supported.

CWS contracts with the Community Action Commission (CAC), and CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) to provide Front Porch services. First 5-funded Family Resource Centers (FRCs) work in partnership with CWS, CAC and CALM to provide services to children and families as well.

This approach has had a big impact … in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, 7 percent of families who received Front Porch services had a substantiated re-referral to Child Welfare Services. By 2015-2016, that number was down to 1 percent.

BR: I’m also really excited to see a lot more awareness around supporting youth in the foster care system. The Our County Our Kids campaign has really taken off.

AK: Thanks! We started this campaign to recruit and retain foster parents in April 2016. There are approximately 400 local children in foster care. Approximately 25 percent of them have to be placed in other counties. Some of the reasons for out-of-county placement are positive; for example, children being placed with relatives or older youth in extended foster care who are attending the college of their choice.

Unfortunately, some of those children were placed out of county because there were no local resource families available. Although we have seen an increase in resource families in the last year, we still need more, especially for older youth, sibling groups, and children and youth with higher needs.

The Our County Our Kids campaign is working to specifically address the need to keep Santa Barbara County kids at home. Since we started the campaign, we average two outreach/information events per month and four inquiries per week about becoming a Resource Family. More than 295 people have attended Resource Family orientations, resulting in an increase in the number of new, unmatched homes (nonrelative) to 36 in 2016 from 10 in 2015.

BR: That’s impressive! I know the faith community has been a great ally in this campaign.

Child Abuse Prevention Council members wear blue to raise awareness about child abuse and strengthening families to prevent abuse during an April 2016 event.
Child Abuse Prevention Council members wear blue to raise awareness about child abuse and strengthening families to prevent abuse during an April 2016 event. (Child Abuse Prevention Council photo)

AK: Yes, our 1.1.1 Program has had a great response from the faith-based community. The goal is that one church comes around one family with one purpose — that no child is without a family. It’s a great way for people to take smaller steps toward supporting our children in foster care.

BR: You and I both serve on the KIDS Network, which works to ensure that children will grow up in safe, healthy and nurturing homes, schools and communities with equal access to resources and the opportunity to develop their unique potential. What do you see as the key obstacles to this goal in our county?

AK: We have to embrace the complexity of the issues and the needs, services and systems that influence our efforts. Our goal for the county is to build stronger communities by providing integrated services and supports that will lead to positive outcomes in all aspects of safety, health, education, family and community.

Service providers need to be organized into collaborative networks that promote awareness, understanding and relationship. At a higher level, networks and providers must be supported by systems with policies, procedures and funding streams that are aligned and sustainable.

This is the work of KIDS Network — to engage people at every level to promote better outcomes for children, youth and families.

We also release a regular Children’s Scorecard that tracks trends, reports on numerical outcomes, and highlights a few of the cross-sector efforts that are addressing complex issues in our county. Our latest scorecard will be published this spring.

BR: What is the Department of Social Services’ biggest challenge?

AK: We are charged with serving the most vulnerable people in our community, and most of them come to us with complex needs. We have to meet them where they are. Our success depends on our ability to listen, encourage and problem-solve — a process that is very relationship-based.

The difficulty is that we need to do this one-on-one work within a local context that is influenced and affected by resources, partnerships, policies and politics at every level of society. It can be challenging to help families navigate systems that are constantly changing.

BR: Changing programs and changing levels of funding, of course. What returns can the community expect to see from their tax dollars?

AK: Childhood trauma — including sexual abuse, domestic violence, foster placement, neglect and physical abuse — has significant and far-reaching consequences for the victim, and the resources and capacity of their community systems of support.

In the United States, about 400,000 children live in foster care. These young people enter the child welfare system due to severe abuse and neglect or after losing their parents through death or incarceration. Many have lived through drug exposure, domestic violence and sexual abuse in their short lives.

Research shows that young people from foster care are far more likely than their peers to experience poverty, mental illness and homelessness, and they become victims of sex trafficking at rates much higher than their peers. With an estimated 12 million foster care alumni in the United States, these troubling outcomes are taking a toll on families and communities.

This results in increased financial costs to the community related to child welfare, special education, the criminal justice system, productivity losses and health care throughout an individual’s lifespan. The most costly outcome, however, is the intense pain, suffering and reduced quality of life experienced by victims and families.

By providing children and families with prevention, reunification and adoption services, we are able to help families heal and provide children with stable homes.

BR: What would you say to parents who are struggling?

AK: Children ages 0-5 continue to be most vulnerable, with children under 1 year old having the highest rates of abuse and neglect. In 2015, children under the age of 1 represented 5.9 percent of all children in Santa Barbara County, but 15.8 percent of all substantiated cases of abuse and/or neglect.

Parents, especially new parents, can easily feel overwhelmed. One of the hardest things is taking the first step and being willing to ask for help. “We’re glad you are here. Please tell us your story, and let’s find your strengths and build on them.” We want to help parents identify people who can be their support network, to gain knowledge of resources that are available to them and help them feel a sense of self-determination and success.

BR: What can community members do to help?

AK: Child abuse prevention is everyone’s responsibility. Strengthening families is the key. Notice when families are isolated or under stress and reach out to them. Lend a hand, volunteer, donate money to organizations that support children and families.

If you suspect abuse, speak up and call us at 800.367.0166 with your concerns. Link families to resources and support. Let go of judgments and don’t ask what’s wrong with this person, ask what happened and look for ways to help — this is the path to resilience.

BR: Speaking of resilience ...

AK: April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This year the Child Abuse Prevention Council is bringing people together in every region of the county to learn how resilience factors into community-wide prevention strategies.

We’re offering FREE screenings and community discussions around the film Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope in Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez:

» April 4, 3:30 p.m. at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, 2975 Highway 246 in Santa Ynez

» April 6, 3 p.m. at Santa Maria Public Library Central Branch, 421 S. McClelland St. in Santa Maria

» April 20, 6:30 p.m. at La Cumbre Junior High School, 2255 Modoc Road in Santa Barbara

As a child, Amy Krueger says, reading and recess were her favorite things to do at school.
As a child, Amy Krueger says, reading and recess were her favorite things to do at school. (Krueger family photo)

» April 24, 6 p.m. at Dick DeWees Community Center, 1120 W. Ocean Ave. in Lompoc

BR: Where did you attend kindergarten?

AK: Cayucos Elementary School. My favorite parts were reading and recess. My hands were always calloused — I spent a lot of time on the bars doing tricks. My mother was a big fan of the How to Teach Your Baby to Read book and growing up there were flashcards all over the house. I was shy in class but being able to read early helped me feel more confident and successful.

BR: At First 5, we certainly endorse reading! Now you have come full circle, helping children and families build the skills and support networks they need to feel confident.

AK: Thanks so much, Ben, for highlighting our county’s most vulnerable kids.

BR: The Department of Social Services is a critical partner in so many networks supporting children 0-5. See you in April as we plant some Pinwheels for Prevention in Lompoc and Santa Maria!

Click here for more information about First 5 Santa Barbara County.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.