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'Children Need Care to Grow'

Appoint an ombudsman to oversee complaints against the county foster care system.

May 17, 1997|ANDREW BRIDGE | Andrew Bridge is executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights, an organization that provides free legal assistance to children in poverty and in Los Angeles County foster care

A year ago, I came home to the foster care system that raised me. At age 6, I was taken from my mother who was unable to care for me, placed in Los Angeles County foster care, and remained a foster child until I was 18.

My foster care experience was middle of the road. I lived first in MacLaren Hall (now the MacLaren Children's Center) and later with a single foster family for 11 years. I went off to Wesleyan University and eventually Harvard Law School.

Since my return to Los Angeles, I have visited and spoken with many children living in foster homes, group homes and large facilities. The most striking observation I have made is the huge chasm between what the county mandates as care for these children and the actual conditions of these children's lives. Removed from their homes for abuse or neglect, foster children desperately need care that will allow them to heal and grow into healthy adults.

The recent Los Angeles County Grand Jury report on 29 foster care group homes is replete with examples of the continuing abuse and neglect of children in the county's care.

In the words of the grand jury: "About half of the sites we investigated had furniture that had missing drawers, stains on the carpets, no desks in the children's rooms, walls with holes and bathrooms without toilet paper. . . . At many sites, there is no money being spent on furniture, the physical plant or educational materials. . . . [S]ome children are not receiving the items they are entitled to, such as proper therapy, clothes, allowances, challenging activities and educational supplies."

None of these conditions should be acceptable to county officials or the people of Los Angeles. Such mistreatment of children is clearly unacceptable to those group homes that work hard to provide nurturing environments for children.To dismiss the grand jury's findings as individual aberrations in Los Angeles' foster care, as some critics have, misses the underlying problem: The county's policies for protecting children in its care are, too often, little more than ink on paper.

Furthermore, insufficient funding does not explain the county's failure to follow its own guidelines and protect children in its care. The grand jury notes nearly $250 million is expended annually on group home foster care services for approximately 5,000 children.

The conclusion of the grand jury is resounding. "The Department of Children and Family Services cannot do an adequate job of monitoring itself." The reality for foster children is that too often they have been removed from the neglectful or abusive care of a parent and placed into the neglectful or abusive care of the county.

The Board of Supervisors should adopt and expand the grand jury's recommendation that a "special group home ombudsman" be appointed to protect all Los Angeles foster children, regardless of whether their placement is in an individual home, group home, or large facility.

The foster children's ombudsman office must be sufficiently staffed, independent from the Department of Children and Family Services and charged with ensuring that all county policies relating to the humane treatment of foster children are enforced. All incidents of abuse and neglect should be reported to the ombudsman who should be authorized to investigate those incidents and report the status and results of such investigations directly to the Board of Supervisors and track systemwide patterns of abuse and neglect.

County foster care policies represent a commitment to foster children and to the people who are responsible for those children's immediate care and future promise as adults. The county ought not to destroy that promise.

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