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County Lacks Shelter for Foster Children

Some spend the night in an office waiting room since the closing of the only emergency facility.

June 23, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

One night in early May, a 16-year-old girl who had fled her foster home was picked up by police and taken to what has turned into an emergency shelter in Los Angeles County: the sparsely furnished waiting room of a government office.

The child, who suffered from spina bifida and bladder and bowel problems, stayed there overnight, left to sleep on an old plastic couch with dirty blankets, because it took social workers almost nine hours to find a foster home that could handle her medical needs.

Since Los Angeles County closed its only emergency shelter for abused and neglected children in March, more than 20 of its neediest foster kids have been offered the same overnight accommodations, according to interviews and county records.

In the past, the children -- many of them troubled teenagers who have bounced around the foster-care system for years -- might have been sent to MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte, a shelter crowded with mentally ill, abused and delinquent youths.

But with the facility shuttered amid a class-action lawsuit, the county has been unable to find safe temporary homes for hard-to-handle children.

In May, 18 children spent at least six hours at the county's emergency response command post on Wilshire Boulevard, the sixth-floor office of the county's Department of Children and Family Services, which is open around the clock to handle child-abuse complaints but is not equipped to house children. Seventeen kids stayed there overnight.

The logbook that recorded each stay highlights deep cracks in the foster-care system, such as limited services for children with serious psychological and emotional needs.

The entries include:

* A 17-year-old with "severe psychiatric problems" whose foster mother refused to keep him after a violent episode. The boy spent more than 10 hours at the command post.

* A 15-year-old who had run away from foster placement and was picked up by the police and taken to the post. The youth, who remained there for 30 hours, had a diagnosed psychiatric condition requiring medication.

* Two children, ages 5 and 9, who were removed from their mother's home in the middle of the night because of domestic violence. They were kept at the post for six hours while social workers waited for results of a criminal background check on their relatives.

The problems at the command post cropped up as soon as MacLaren closed and worsened as the weeks went by, said Louise Grasmehr, a spokeswoman for the county agency.

Only one child stayed there for more than four hours in March, but seven did in April, she said. The difficulty continued through May and into June, when three children with mental health problems were removed from the same foster home after their foster mother was arrested.

"Foster mother failed to ensure that one of the children, who is schizophrenic and severely developmentally delayed, returned safely home from school," the command post's June 2 entry stated.

"When child called foster mother, stating she had missed the school bus and needed a ride, foster mother did not respond, made no attempt to ensure the child's safe arrival at home and went out for the evening with her cellular telephone turned off."

In an incident the next day, a group home called the county's child abuse hotline to demand that a 6-year-old girl with medical problems be removed because of "destructive behavior."

The child, who was unable to walk, then was taken to another placement home where the caretaker refused to accept her. Workers picked the girl up and took her to the command post at 3:35 a.m.

"The resources are so limited, they just don't have a place to put these kids," said Edward Saldana, a social worker at the command post who previously worked at MacLaren for 23 years.

"They didn't think about what's going to happen after they closed MacLaren, " Saldana said.

David Sanders, the new Department of Children and Family Services director, said that the post never had been intended as a place for children to sleep.

In the last two weeks, Sanders said, he has ordered the county's network of group homes to stop abruptly discharging children -- they are supposed to give seven days' notice -- and he has identified four emergency shelter beds throughout the system that could accommodate kids with serious psychological, emotional or medical needs. As a backup, Sanders also had rollaway cots delivered to the command post.

"We need to solve this immediately," he said. "But the underlying issue is that kids have drifted for too long in this system."

MacLaren was a glaring symbol of that failure.

Meant to be a temporary haven, the shelter had become a virtual holding tank for disturbed children whom nobody else seemed to want. Violent outbursts were common, as were allegations of child abuse and lawsuits against the facility.

Children often lived there for months, sometimes pingponging from group homes to psychiatric hospitals and back to Mac, as the shelter was known.

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