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Sandy Banks

Helping Children by Fixing the System

October 10, 2000|Sandy Banks

It's not the kind of issue we tend to think much about, until some horrific incident forces it front and center.

Two-year-old Lance Helms is beaten to death by his father, a drug addict with a criminal past who had recently been granted custody of the boy. Toddler Marisela Barajas dies at the hands of her mother, weeks after she is returned home from foster care.

We blame the courts, the social workers. We pass new laws that put "child safety" first, that make it easier to keep kids away from parents who might abuse or neglect them.

But public opinion can be a poor way to make public policy. Because for every Lance Helms there is a Gilbreania Wallace, whose death in foster care registered barely a blip on our emotional radar screens.

Two-year-old Gilbreania was beaten to death in foster care . . . a "well-regarded foster home," officials called it, until they realized that three other babies had been seriously injured there.

Gilbreania had been taken from her home--by the same system that sent Lance Helms to his dad, that let Marisela Barajas go home to her mom--because the pipes in her house had broken and flooded the basement with raw sewage.

You might argue--in hindsight, of course--that she might be alive today had she gotten what she really needed: a plumber, not a foster home.

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Stories like Gilbreania's are Richard Wexler's stock-in-trade as he crisscrosses the country trying to drum up support for the fledging National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. The group, based in Alexandria, Va., wants changes in the nation's system of children's services: more support for family preservation, less emphasis on the use of foster homes.

What looks like abuse and neglect, Wexler argues, is often ignorance and poverty. And what is done in the name of saving children often puts them in harm's way.

"The choice is not," he says, "between putting a child in a loving foster home or leaving him to fend for himself with abusive or neglectful parents."

Members of his group advocate spending more money to create programs of intensive supervision in which social workers would visit families as often as every day, assessing their strengths as well as their problems. Often simple, concrete services--child care, housing assistance, parenting classes--can relieve the pressure on a troubled family.

"And that means you need fewer foster homes, so you can be more selective" in choosing foster parents, Wexler says. "That lowers the risk that a child will be abused there."

Ten years ago, the National Commission on Children found that children are often removed from their families unnecessarily because federal aid formulas create a financial incentive for states to rely on foster care, rather than family repair.

That hasn't changed, Wexler says. For every dollar a county spends on a child in a foster home, 60 cents is recouped from state and federal funds. But there is no comparable reimbursement for government services that keep families together.

Surprisingly, Wexler may have an ally in unlikely quarters: Anita Bock, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, which has almost 50,000 children in a foster care network that has been derided in a series of governmental investigations for being at best disorganized and at worst abusive.

"There is a growing recognition," Bock said, "that early intervention is the right thing to do. No matter how good the system is, it is not the right place to raise children. A healthy family is the best way to raise a child."

Bock has a series of reforms underway to funnel more money to so-called family preservation efforts. But she admits it may be hard to change the culture of an agency that has grown accustomed to being blamed for placing children in the wrong hands and failing to catch those mistakes.

"There is confusion and conflict on the front lines, among the social workers. No one wants to make that decision to leave a child, and something goes wrong."

But the system is a tightrope, with the potential for terrible mistakes on either side.

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Social worker Gloria Katona has seen the issue from both sides. She's shuttled kids from their homes into foster care, to get them away from parents who abused or neglected them maliciously. And she's sat down with distraught mothers, cradling babies and pleading for a chance to be good parents, and helped teach them the skills they lack.

She has seen the revolving door that keeps department caseloads at record levels: children put in foster care, sent home, then taken from their parents again. "Lots of families keep coming back. We close the case, but we never resolve the problem. They never got the help they needed.

"Some of these families are just overwhelmed--the kids are exhausting, they're tired from work, they have a house full of dirty clothes. And we compound that with the trauma--and it's always traumatic--of removing their child. Sometimes there's a better way."

Family services department director Bock says her department has a few pilot programs that focus on keeping families together by offering everything from instruction in housekeeping to anger management classes.

But it's not enough. Community groups must step up to the plate if they want to find ways to keep families together.

"I think we can do both--protect children and preserve families--but we have to make a commitment to fund prevention services . . . and that means community agencies have to offer services, because we can't do it all," Bock says.

"I think it's time to stop blaming the system and recognize that we are the system. Time to quiet our rhetoric down and stop dealing only with the outrageous, the horror stories, and remember all those thousands of other little children."

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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