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Sharper Eye on Foster Kids

June 03, 2002

Los Angeles County officials recently agreed to make monthly visits to the 50,000 formerly neglected and abused children in its care, mostly in foster homes. Cheers for this victory are muted because it took two years of court battles, as well as the disappearance of a 5-year-old girl in foster care in Florida whose social worker apparently reported months of home visits that never occurred. Now, for visits to be more than perfunctory "drive-bys," L.A.'s foster-care agency needs to do things differently.

State rules require social workers to stop in on each child in foster care at least once a month to see whether the child is safe and well cared for and to plan for adoption or a return to family. In Los Angeles, however, the huge caseloads, constant staff turnover and thin budgets have made compliance a challenge. That's why, years ago, the county let social workers skip visits if they determined that the children were doing well in stable homes.

This practice rightly alarmed child welfare advocates, who sued. Once the county takes children from their homes, social workers' most important duty is to ensure that they remain safe. Yet with each social worker monitoring 11 to 60 children, some at opposite ends of the county, and mountains of paperwork, visits can degenerate into a superficial "drive-by," in social worker parlance.

What would make it better?

* More social workers. The state contributes to the problem by permitting impossibly high caseloads, because it would have to help pay for more caseworkers if the limits are reduced. With smaller caseloads, however, social workers could hang out with kids long enough to learn whether they're safe and are getting the extra help so many need with schoolwork and emotional problems. The issue, in a debt-crisis year, is money.

* Better training. Working with such fragile and vulnerable children is emotionally grueling and technically complex. Many caseworkers aren't well enough prepared. Anita Bock, head of the county's Department of Children and Family Services, says an internal training "academy" she intends to launch later this year should help.

* Less paperwork. Social workers complain they spend almost as much time filling out forms as they do visiting children. The department must do more to streamline paperwork and shift clerical tasks to administrative staff.

It's not enough for the county to agree to follow the law. It must make sure that monthly visits help children deal with the traumas that have derailed their families and start planning for their futures.

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