March 25, 2013: In an opinion piece, "A safer foster system," in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Andrew Bridge, at left, executive director of the Child Welfare Initiative in Los Angeles and author of the memoir, Hope's Boy, writes that L.A. County hasn't adopted "key reforms that could help protect young children at risk."
Bridge, a former foster child (11 years in the LA County system), considers his childhood in "a loveless foster home" to be "lucky." "I was taken into the system because I needed to be, and even if my situation was far from perfect, I was at least safe and physically provided for. But those basic elements of care shouldn't have to depend on luck."
Referencing a recent report, commissioned by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and published in the Times, [see "13 more child deaths on LA County's doorstep"] Bridge notes [emphases ours]:
...If these latest revelations follow the usual course, advocates will demand another round of leadership changes. But that would be the wrong approach. In the last 15 years, the Department of Children and Family Services has had eight directors. It's hard to build continuity with that sort of turnover. It would also be a mistake to suddenly descend on at-risk families, plucking children from their homes and swelling the number of children in county care.
So what should be done? The report offers a number of recommendations, but it neglects two crucial ones.
Of the deaths looked at in the report, 11 of 16 involved children 5 years old or younger. More than a third of all allegations of abuse or neglect in the county involve children [0-5], and nearly 50% of all children who enter county foster care are [0-5]. While noting overall failures to investigate and evaluate risks, the report pays scant attention to these facts.
Very young children are particularly vulnerable. They have the fewest contacts outside of a home. They are less likely to be in school. They can be easily moved, even hidden, from investigators. They have far less ability to articulate their circumstances to others. While some procedures are in place for evaluating young children's cases, the county ought to determine why safeguards failed and then heighten them for this age group.
One step toward addressing these problems would be ... to move away from reliance on a single emergency response worker's assessment and require multiple people to evaluate a child's circumstances... something like peer reviews in medicine, which allow doctors to assess their approaches to a patient's illness. Other foster care systems, such as in New York and Illinois, have adopted this reform successfully. Los Angeles has been tragically slow.
A second failing of the report involves service providers. It makes some important recommendations, including more effective identification, coordination and vetting of those who take in foster children. But most of its focus is on larger providers who run group homes or otherwise care for multiple children. Scant mention is made of the kind of providers most children end up with: unrelated foster parents or family members who agree to take them in. As of January , 76% of children under county care were living with unrelated foster parents (32%) or with family relatives (44%). Individual providers are responsible for feeding and clothing a child, getting a child to the doctor and school, and navigating a complex bureaucracy to ensure that a child's needs are met.
Los Angeles County needs to take immediate steps to monitor and improve the care that children receive in individual homes. National census data indicate that households caring for foster children...are larger than households without foster children, have lower levels of education and have lower incomes...[and] are more likely to receive public assistance....
The county also needs to develop strategies for identifying families with the parenting qualities needed and for eliminating those who don't have them. If a particular foster home repeatedly asks that children in its care be relocated, or if children in a particular home are more likely to fail at school or aren't taken to doctors when they need to be... the county should no longer place children in those homes. This seems like basic logic; yet according to the report, the county lacks the means to track outcomes from individual homes...
News tips thanks to Los Angeles Downtown News.