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Foster Care Probe Called 'Witch Hunt'

August 03, 1990|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Declaring that state and county officials are waging a "witch hunt" in their effort to identify children who may have been abused while in foster care, a San Fernando Valley foster mother is seeking a court order to prevent authorities from removing four children from her home.

Her request for a temporary restraining order--which her lawyer plans to bring in Juvenile Court today--is part of a coordinated effort by angry foster parents to fight back as county officials, acting on orders from the state, reopen more than 650 old investigations into allegations of sexual and physical abuse in foster homes.

So far, county officials have removed about 25 children from 11 foster homes as a result of the reopening of these complaints, some of which were first examined five and six years ago. Depending on the outcome of the renewed investigations, the children will either be returned to the parents or the parents may be stripped of their foster care licenses.

The request for a temporary restraining order is being brought by foster parent Kathie Durand of Reseda, who said she was tipped off to the county's plans to remove her foster children while investigators reexamine a 3-year-old allegation of sexual abuse.

Durand's dispute with the county marks the latest twist in the continuing troubles of the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services. The department, which is in the throes of a management reorganization in the wake of the resignation of its director, has been under attack from state officials for being lax about removing children and revoking the licenses of foster parents who have been accused of abuse.

But as the department tries to address the state's criticisms, it has come under attack from foster parents who say that regulators are too quick to take foster children away.

In all the cases the county is reinvestigating, the foster parents previously were cleared of wrongdoing. The cases were reopened after state officials in June seized 15 county file cabinets containing foster care records and discovered investigations that they say were either mishandled or incomplete.

The county currently licenses 3,800 foster homes and has 10,000 children in foster care, although some of those are in other facilities. County officials maintain that removing some children now is necessary to ensure their safety--even where complaints were made years ago.

"If we can prove abuse happened two years back, we're going to remove the kids today, even if we don't know of anything that has happened (since)," said Everett Harper, who supervises the department's investigative unit.

But foster parents are complaining that children have been yanked willy-nilly and that uprooting the youngsters from foster parents with whom they have bonded causes the children psychological harm.

"I'm worried sick," said foster mother Hallie Duda of Wilmington, whose six foster children were removed earlier this week. "My 3-year-old, she was screaming and crying 'Mommy, don't leave me! Don't leave me!' . . . This is a nightmare."

Said Lupe Ross, vice president of the Los Angeles County Foster Parent Assn.: "It has got to stop someplace. It's like a witch hunt now and the ones that are suffering are the children."

The county foster parent group represents about 20 local foster parent associations, which act as support groups for foster parents and meet with county officials. Durand is vice president of one of the local groups, the San Fernando Valley Foster Parent Assn. Her effort is being supported by Ross and other foster parent presidents.

"It's not that we want the media, the state or the county to cover up abuse in foster care," Ross said. "But if children have been there for five, six, seven years and then they just come and pull them, I think that's wrong, too."

Two weeks ago, the Children's Services Department was rocked by disclosures that county officials failed to strip the licenses of two foster parent group presidents--including the head of the countywide association--even after department investigators concluded that children had been physically and sexually abused in their homes. Durand, Ross and other foster parent leaders contend that the county is overreacting in the wake of those news accounts.

Harper, however, said the county is simply following a stricter standard than it has in the past. While acknowledging that removing children without any notice is often traumatic, he said, "We have to weigh that possibility against the equally real possibility of somebody being seriously hurt or molested."

In the Durand case, according to her lawyer, John M. Blackburn, Durand's husband faced a complaint from a foster child three years ago that he had sexually molested her. The complaint was investigated by the Children's Services Department and police, Blackburn said, adding that authorities determined it was unfounded. The Durands were permitted to keep their foster home license.

Harper would not discuss the Durand case, and state officials said Thursday that the couple has not been presented with a formal accusation--the first step toward revocation of a foster parent's license.

But Blackburn said he believes the county intends to revoke the Durands' license based on a new interview with the alleged victim, who no longer lives in the Durand home. The couple currently is caring for four foster children, 4 through 13, all of whom are considered difficult to place because of emotional or medical problems.

Both Blackburn and Avon Dawdy, president of the San Fernando Valley Foster Parent Assn., said that if Durand wins the temporary restraining order, they will use her case as a benchmark for other foster families who are once again under investigation.

"This is like being tried twice for something," Dawdy said, "and it does not make any sense."

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