LONG BEACH — Janet Enos takes care of babies who have been damaged in the womb by alcohol- and drug-dependent mothers.
Enos does not expect to profit financially from the 24-hour care she gives. Like other foster parents in the Long Beach area, she is a volunteer, entitled only to reimbursement for the basic living expenses of the children she shelters at her home in Artesia.
Enos is troubled that the monthly support checks she receives from the county barely pay those expenses and have not kept pace with inflation for the past five years. But what bothers her more is that she usually has to wait 60 to 90 days--and sometimes the better part of a year--before receiving the first payment for a child. This month, she is expecting $1,200 in reimbursement checks for a baby who was in her home from last November through January.
"It's ridiculous when you've got to go into your savings to make it up," Enos said. "They have to do something about the system for getting money for these kids."
Selma Ramirez, another Long Beach area foster parent who has experienced long delays, added: "It gets very depressing when you don't get checks and the kids need clothes."
Many other foster parents in Los Angeles County share the reimbursement problem, and this month, they have taken action to change the system. The 150-member Long Beach Foster Parents' Assn. voted not to accept new placements during March in a protest against delayed payments and the lack of an increase in the amount of support checks. A sister organization in the San Gabriel Valley is conducting a similar protest, and other foster parent organizations have brought complaints to Robert L. Chaffee, head of the county Department of Children's Services.
"I was a little concerned that the protest was made while we were working on the problems the parents brought up," Chaffee said last week. But, he added, "I respected their need to make a statement."
He also said he was worried when the protest began, and had hoped it "would not lead to widespread refusal to accept children."
Chaffee said that after meeting with foster parents last Wednesday, he is confident that the payment problems will be corrected.
And several parents confirmed that there are signs that improvements may be forthcoming.
Overall, the Long Beach association's protest has not appreciably affected the department's ability to place children. While the approximately 400 parents in the Long Beach and San Gabriel Valley area organizations compose about a tenth of the county foster parent roster, not all of them have had vacancies in March.
Chaffee said 15 families had called the department to say they would not be accepting new placements this month.
"Whenever foster parents say they're not going to take children, it always has an impact," said Jean McIntosh, an assistant bureau director at the Department of Children's Services. But, she added that so far the department had not detected an effect from the parents' action.
The president of the Long Beach Foster Parents' Assn., Shirley Ierien, said her group did not intend to disrupt the operation of the foster family placement system.
"We're not trying to close down the system," Ierien said. "That's not the point. We're saying there's a problem, you haven't done anything about it. Now we're going to protest, so that you do." If she thought the group's action would deprive a child of a home, Ierien said, she would not have endorsed it.
Ierien said that although foster parents' contracts stipulate that they should receive their first reimbursement check within 45 days after they accept a child, for many parents, it takes from three to six months to get paid.
At each of the Long Beach Foster Parents Assn. meetings for the past several years, Ierien said, members have complained about late payments.
"I've been hornswoggled, snowed," said Ierien of the many times she has met with county officials.
However, after the meeting with Chaffee last week, Ierien said she was satisfied that the county has begun to pay attention to her group's demands.
"They're just about up to date on the payments," she noted. "I took in complaints from 13 people last month, and this month, I only heard from three people who weren't receiving payments."
"I think a lot of excellent things are going to come from" Wednesday's meeting with Chaffee, she said.
Childrens Services official McIntosh said she did not think the payment delays were "happening on a wide scale." She attributed the problems to an antiquated payment system that is not computerized.
Emory Bontrager, another agency spokesman, estimated that there are delays in payment of more than 60 days in 25% of new placements. The county by law cannot reimburse foster parents until the month after they have cared for a child, he said, and foster parents are told not to expect payment for 60 days from the date of placement.