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County Accused of Letting Foster Children Suffer Abuse : Welfare: California's chief of social services says L.A. agency has failed to protect its wards and report problems promptly.


The Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services has continuously failed to protect children in foster care from substandard conditions and physical and sexual abuse, including instances where 10 children were found sleeping on the floor of a garage and 20 infants were kept in 10 cribs, according to state officials.

State Department of Social Services officials said they are considering stripping the county of its authority to license and monitor foster homes.

In a scathing letter to Robert Chaffee, director of county children's services, Linda McMahon, head of state social services, accused county officials of repeatedly failing to promptly report deaths, abuse and overcrowded conditions in foster homes to state officials who are responsible for revoking licenses of such facilities.

"The majority of the revocation cases sent to us from Los Angeles County involve sexual molestation, physical abuse or death of children in the care of foster parents," McMahon wrote in the letter last month. "It is still typically six months to a year after the discovery of the incident before referral for legal action occurs. This is an unacceptable delay."

Foster homes are operated by private citizens, paid with public funds, to care for children who have been declared wards of the court, usually because they have been abandoned, neglected or abused. Los Angeles County is paid $3.3 million a year by the state to license and monitor 3,800 foster homes that house more than 10,000 children.

McMahon's five-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, details two recent cases in which county children's services officials allegedly failed to take prompt action after discovering dangerous conditions in foster homes. In one case, county officials last July allegedly discovered 10 children sleeping on the floor of a foster home garage and 10 more youngsters living in one bedroom upstairs.

"Three of the children have been abused, two of them severely," the letter said. Despite this, McMahon charged that county officials waited five months before reporting the case to state officials for license revocation.

When the home was finally closed in January, the letter says, "Los Angeles County removed five . . . children who were still in placement. Based on a medical examination, one of the children was determined to have been physically abused, resulting in a skull fracture and two broken limbs."

The letter cites another case in which county officials in late November allegedly found one person in a foster home looking after 20 infants who were sleeping in 10 cribs. The home was licensed for only four children, but county officials allegedly failed to report the conditions to the state, pending a coroner's report on the death of a baby who had been living at the home.

State officials learned of conditions at the home "through an independent source" and contacted Los Angeles County officials on Dec. 8.

"Los Angeles County did agree to remove the children," McMahon said in the letter to Chaffee, "but only after the state informed your staff that 20 infants in a foster family home licensed for four placements was grounds in and of itself to suspend the license and remove all of the children."

When the infants were finally removed from the home in December, McMahon contended in her letter, county children's service workers were so ill-informed that they had to rely on the foster-care operator to identify the children and to help find their placement workers.

In several instances, McMahon charged, "The wrong children were given to the placement workers because the staff person at the facility and some of the placement workers did not know which child was which.

"After all of the original 20 children were removed on Dec. 8. 1989, another Los Angeles County placement worker placed a child in this same home over the succeeding weekend."

McMahon contended in the letter that the county has shown no consistent improvement in its services to foster children despite efforts by state officials to provide such assistance as training in regulations and complaint investigations.

"There have been no long-lasting improvements," McMahon wrote.

McMahon's letter requested that Chaffee send state officials a "corrective action plan" by March 1 and implement the plan July 1. Otherwise, the state might terminate its contract giving the county responsibility for licensing and monitoring foster homes.

The state would take over licensing and monitoring responsibilities if the contract were terminated, according to Larry Bolton, assistant chief counsel in the state Department of Social Services.

Bolton said other counties have mutually agreed with the state to give up certain licensing authority in the past, but said he was unaware of a situation in which the state unilaterally terminated such a contract with a county.

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