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No Place Like Home
Growing up in foster care is 'one of the worst things that can happen,' says one L.A. County official. But even as his department works to place more kids in permanent homes, statewide failures could mean the loss of $60 million in federal funds
By Joe Piasecki
David Sanders, the director of the vast Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, has a unique vision for improving the lives of the thousands of children in county foster care: make fewer of them.
"We don't want children in foster care," says Sanders, who manages the cases of more than 22,000 children who can no longer live at home. "Youth who grow up in a safe family where they aren't being abused do much, much better, and that's what we're trying to create for everybody: that we not have children grow up in foster care. It's one of the worst things that can happen."
Recent findings concerning youth who end up in foster care add serious weight to this statement. As many as half of local foster youth become homeless shortly after leaving care. That's not a small problem; it's a massive failure. Many leave the system without high school diplomas or are victims of undetected abuse committed by caregivers. Though many good foster care homes exist, thousands of kids are simply shuffled from placement to placement without much attention to their schoolwork, life skills, or physical and emotional health.
The state also has much at stake with what happens in L.A., where roughly one-third of California foster youth live. L.A.'s situation may determine whether the state will meet federal mandates for the safety and stability of kids in foster care and finding them permanent homes. Currently, the state is failing to meet those goals, according to an April report by the National Center for Youth Law. And if things don't change soon, according to that document, federal officials could as early as next year withhold $60 million in foster care funds.
Since Sanders took over the department in March 2003, the number of children in county care has dropped dramatically from more than 30,000, and most kids are spending about 600 days in the system - down from 1,100 - before returning home to their families or being adopted.
Sanders said he expects the number of youth in care and the length of time they are there to decrease even more rapidly with the recent approval by state and federal officials of a funding-restrictions waiver that will allow care workers to spend their time keeping families from breaking down.
Under the old rules, DCFS received funding only to care for those children who they removed from dangerous homes, so essentially the county was being punished financially for trying to keep families together. This change in philosophy represents a big opportunity for county workers, whose role has been narrowed to simply removing children from troubled homes.
The push to drive down the number of kids in the foster care system has won the support of L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a former teacher and longtime advocate for better conditions for foster youth. Antonovich describes the 48-year-old Sanders, formerly a child psychologist, as "a breath of fresh air."
"Through his leadership, children which were floundering in foster care are being adopted and being placed in permanent families that will provide them the foundation to become successful, productive citizens," says Antonovich.
But now he may be holding his breath.
Last week, nonprofit foster youth advocates Casey Family Programs announced they had just hired Sanders to leave L.A. and become an executive vice president at their national headquarters in Seattle. Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich, confirmed the change on Wednesday, saying, "Dr. Saunders is officially leaving the county. Of course we're dissapointed. He was a tremendous leader." Sanders's new position will entail influencing national foster care policies, says Casey spokeswoman Megan Barrett, who would not elaborate on details of the hiring process. Sanders could not be reached.
All Over the Map
Even with recent improvements in Los Angeles, foster care conditions vary widely throughout the state, says Curt Child, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.
"A fundamental problem with our California [child] welfare system is we have 58 different programs running in 58 different counties, and a real lack of strong leadership at the state level to make sure all children have opportunities for safety and stability," says Child, a member of the state's Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. "On the federal measures, we're not doing well at all."
As of early 2006, only 13 counties are meeting a federal requirement that no more than 8 percent of kids who leave foster care return in less than a year. All but 14 counties move kids around too frequently, only 33 counties are helping enough children become adopted, and only 36 have limited substantiated reports of abuse in foster care to a federally mandated .57 percent.
Statewide, many counties have been making improvements in these areas, but "It's not like it's a new program," says Child, who characterizes recent gains as limited and very slow in coming.
The 2004 California Performance Review Report commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - who last week approved new foster care funding with passage of the state budget - also described state foster care as a system in crisis, mainly for lack of a strong, centralized oversight body.
"The challenges in the system include confusing funding streams, seemingly inequitable foster care payment rates, lack of qualified social workers, too few foster homes, and fragmented service delivery. Although various state and local agencies and thousands of dedicated individuals are working on these issues, no one has the authority to coordinate efforts, ensure accountability and resolve the problems that continue to plague California's foster children," reads the report.
Despite these concerns, Schwarzenegger cut $3.5 million intended to target foster care deficiencies from last year's state budget, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
This year, however, Schwarzenegger has approved an $82 million boost for foster care and child welfare concerns. The money will, among other things, go toward reducing social workers' caseloads, increasing housing and educational opportunities for emancipated foster youth, and hiring more adoption caseworkers, according to a statement by Assemblymember Karen Bass, who chairs the Assembly's Select Committee on Foster Care.
But will it be enough? Foster care has been low among state priorities so long that California's top foster care officials are paid lower salaries than top L.A. County bureaucrats, and reform efforts have not kept up pace with demand, says Carole Shauffer, director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, which has successfully sued the state and various counties numerous times for failing to adequately care for foster children.
"Not only do foster kids not vote, their parents don't vote. Even though there is some commitment to it, there is no NRA of foster care," she says, making foster care an issue all too easy to ignore.
Long Way to Go
Los Angeles County, despite improvements, still isn't reaching many federal standards, admits Sanders. When it comes to children being adopted in less than two years or being reunited with families in less than one - benchmarks of foster care success - L.A. is among the 10 worst-performing counties.
"Those are areas that we do very poorly in. We have made dramatic improvement in them, but we started out so poorly in those," says Sanders, who has nearly doubled the amount of children adopted within two years and has raised by nearly 10 percent the number of children reunified with their families in less than a year.
County social workers are also now practicing what Sanders calls "alternative response," essentially bringing services into homes that haven't reached the point of becoming abusive but are headed for trouble.
Keeping abused or neglected children out of foster care is risky business though, according to the National Center for Youth Law Report. "Victims of child abuse and neglect in California are re-victimized at alarming rates. Nearly 4,000 children are victims of abuse or neglect within six months of the agency substantiating earlier abuse. More than 11,000 children are abused or neglected again within one year," reads the report, which found all but five counties were unable to keep less than 6 percent of the kids they take abuse reports on from becoming abused again.
Deanne Tilton Durfee, head of L.A. County's Interagency Council on Abuse and Neglect in El Monte, is worried that those numbers don't tell the whole story.
"Data at the local, state, and national level on child abuse and child fatalities is very inaccurate," says Tilton Durfee, a former chair of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor with UC Berkeley's Center for Child and Youth Policy and a member of the state's Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, says the poor results reflect how infrequently state licensing workers check up on some foster homes (only once every five or 10 years), how often foster children see their social workers (as little as once a month) and - with such limited oversight - how often already troubled kids in county care are neglected or abused by - those who are paid to care for them.
"When you look at the data, it's a little curious. Look at the official reports of abuse in foster care and the numbers are strikingly low, that less than one percent of kids in foster care are abused in foster care [the federal standard is .57 percent]. On the other side of the coin, talk to kids in foster care or former foster youth and they will tell you that they have experienced a rather more difficult path," she says, noting a recent study in the Midwest that found as many as one in three former foster children report having been abused or neglected while in state care.
From January through September of last year, only 1.4 percent of L.A. County foster kids suffered substantiated maltreatment by caregivers, according to reports on file with the state Department of Social Services.
But, "What the state is reporting is probably the tip of the iceberg. There's a lot under the surface when you talk to kids individually," says Youth Law Center's Shauffer.
Ebony, a 21-year-old former John Muir High School student who became homeless when her time in county-sponsored transitional housing ran out, says with some foster parents or group home operators, the caregiving business is all about the money.
"She wouldn't feed us for days," Ebony recalls of one foster parent in Colorado, where she stayed before coming to Pasadena to live with relatives. Though most of her caregivers weren't nearly as cold, she found no one who seemed to care, no one who realized that "This is not just a paycheck - you're going to affect our lives."
Like other youth interviewed for this story who are now seeking jobs and mainstream housing, Ebony asked to be identified only by her first name. She and others shared memories of foster parents who did not provide adequate food or clothing, failed to make sure they went to school, and even indulged in drug and alcohol abuse in their presence.
Such stories are common among foster care system graduates from all over the country, many of whom end up in Greater Los Angeles for the sunshine, available services, and a chance at a new life.
"It's a huge problem, and it's an oversight problem," says Shauffer.
Jennifer Rodriquez, legislative and police coordinator for California Youth Connection, an advocacy organization operated by former foster youth, agrees that the system is too overburdened to respond to complaints.
"Many foster youth have had the experience of knowing another youth that was reporting abuse and seeing it was meaningless, so a lot of youth don't report it, will run away from the placement, tolerate it, or ask to be removed," says Rodriquez, who not only hears such things from kids but lived through it herself.
"I reported that there was abuse happening in one of my group homes and I wasn't believed," she says. "I decided from that point on that I wasn't going to use any of the systems that were in place to deal with complaints."
Thanks in part to lobbying by California Youth Connection, however, there are systems in place to help foster youth in crisis. At both the state and county levels, a foster care ombudsman is available to hear complaints by advocates and youth who, like Rodriquez once did, feel they have no other recourse.
Within the past year, the California Foster Care Ombudsman's Office heard 937 complaints and took more than 600 calls for information about the system from current and former foster youth, foster and biological parents, and others. Of those complaints, 96 were about rights violations, 62 involved abuse and neglect of foster youth, and 187 pertained to problems with placements in foster homes, according to state records.
However, foster care ombudsmen at both the state and county levels are not fully independent investigators; a few of them told CityBeat they need permission from their departments before speaking with reporters, preventing comment in time for this story.
L.A. is struggling, but the county still comes in above federal standards for keeping foster children leaving care from coming back to the system. The county also does well in not moving them through too many different foster homes.
Among children who had recently been in foster care for about one year, more than 5,000 in the state had been shuffled between at least three foster homes, according to the National Center for Youth Law report. Los Angeles, to its credit, performed best among large counties, keeping nearly 90 percent of kids in its care in only one or two different placements last year.
For this, Sanders credits a push to find relatives of foster kids who are willing to take over legal guardianship. But that didn't come easy. In 2003, Shauffer's YLC sued Sanders and the county for allegedly breezing over required assessments of relatives who take in foster children, a suit that was settled by the DCFS establishing a monitoring program for relative placements.
"It's a challenging area," says Sanders, because "there is an interest in the child being with the relative right away, while at the same time we're asking them to go through the same [approval system] that a foster home is going through. Now they have to be studied and visited."
In L.A., more than 11,000 foster children are placed in relatives' homes. While those children are more likely to leave foster care with the safety net of family connections, they are, says Tilton Durfee, still at risk: In 2003, two foster children were killed by relatives who were acting as caregivers.
In the newly approved state budget, $8 million will extend benefits to relatives of foster children who take them in, says Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart. The amount budgeted for increasing transitional housing opportunities for emancipated foster youth is $9.9 million, a $4 million increase, she says.
Sanders maintains, however, that the best remedy for all these problems is to get kids into stable families.
"It doesn't mean we don't need transitional housing, and it doesn't mean that we don't need a number of resources for youth that are turning 18. My concern has been that we let too many children leave without family, because family are going to be there for kids when they turn 19 and 20 and 21, so if their housing doesn't come through there's somebody there who will say, 'I can take you in,'" he says.
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), a former federal prosecutor and the co-author of the federal Fostering Our Future Act, says that the real solutions to the foster care crisis will come from listening to the experts - in this case, the foster youth themselves.
"Kids move from placement to placement, often five or six placements, and too many kids simply fall through the cracks, resulting in much greater problems when they are emancipated. Part of the solution is to empower young people in the foster care system, so that when dependency courts make decisions that will affect their lives forever, that they have a greater voice," says Schiff.
If adopted, Schiff's Fostering Our Future Act will require the federal General Accounting Office to conduct a nationwide study of foster care systems and recommend improvements. The bill also focuses heavily on court practices and follows recommendations by the 2003 Pew Commission on Foster Care that, along with changes in funding similar to the waiver obtained by Sanders, called for children to be better represented in the court process. The Fostering Our Future Act would create incentives to help dependency courts retain qualified attorneys for youth and require courts to keep performance data on what happens to foster children.
This kind of interagency cooperation is nothing new to L.A. County, where Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash and Dependency Court Supervising Judge Margaret Henry meet with Sanders on a weekly basis.
"I think the bottom line of the Pew Commission recommendations are courts have to be very active and have a relationship with child welfare officers and work together on reaching the best outcome," says Henry.
According to a recent profile of Nash in West, the Sunday magazine of the L.A. Times, L.A. County judges are twice as likely as the rest of the state to keep kids in foster care after they turn 18.
Henry says that she tries to keep as many kids who lack skills and resources in county care for as long as possible, but acknowledges, "There are kids who go all the way through the foster care system and at 18 they want out and don't want anything to do with anybody and don't want to come to court. You feel like the system's failed them, but you look back and can't figure out what happened or when."
Sometimes, the decisions that judges make can be life-saving, says Queenese, an 18-year-old who grew up in San Diego. She became a foster child for the first time 10 years ago shortly after she ran screaming into the night because her stepmother tried to beat her with a large piece of wood. While much safer, foster homes never felt like home, as she found one foster parent verbally abusive and another blind to the fact that boys in the home would try to grope and molest her.
But the real trouble started after she returned home. She was raped repeatedly by her father from age 13 to 17 and didn't trust her social worker enough to report it. Finally, she did report the abuse to police, but she was determined not to go back into foster care, so slept at friends' homes until she came to Los Angeles, where a judge placed her in a group home.
Here she found support, therapy, and "the closest thing I ever had to a mom," she says, and was able to graduate from Van Nuys High School.
"My dad was trying to find where I was, so I got scared and I came out here and got into placement, got the support I needed," says Queenese, who didn't want her full name printed. "A lot of people say the system hasn't helped them, but if you really, truly use the system and everything the system has to offer, you can do really good."
How To Help:
The Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect is working to provide an adult mentor for every foster child who wants one, but needs volunteers. Call (626) 455-4585.
Reprinted with permission. This article was originally published in Los Angeles City Beat on July 13, 2006.