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L.A.'S PARENT OF LAST RESORT

Moment of Hope for Kids

March 17, 2003

Housekeepers stripped the cots, switched off the lights and locked the doors at MacLaren Children's Center this month for the last time. Mac, as the county's tumble-down holding tank for the most violent and disturbed foster children has been known, is finally closed. As monumental as this is, the Department of Children and Family Services in some ways has taken the easiest step toward improving the lives of the 50,000 children in its care.

Although there are obstacles, it is good news that the county appears to have settled the lawsuit that child welfare advocates filed last summer to get these children the help and the safe, permanent homes to which they are entitled by law. The advocates brought the class-action suit on behalf of children who need individualized mental health services to treat depression, autism and schizophrenia. Often, the suit charged, they were yanked from mental hospital to group home to MacLaren and back, a dozen times or more, and grew more violent or withdrawn with each move. Another lawsuit, by former MacLaren wards, is pending.

The county promises to stop treating these children like hot potatoes. Social workers say they have developed new procedures to make sure all children see the therapists, psychiatrists and tutors they need. Foster-care officials say they will work harder to keep troubled kids with their parents when possible. When children aren't safe at home, the county promises to find them stable foster parents and do more to help these temporary families bond and the children blossom.

The lawsuit focused on helping the county's most violent and disturbed foster children. But the benefits of leading these children toward happier, more independent lives could ripple out to every child the agency monitors, freeing social workers to spend more time with less severely impaired children so they won't regress.

None of this will be easy. The county's enormous size, a dysfunctional bureaucracy and the social workers' heavy caseloads all contribute to the fact that L.A. County children drift in foster care twice as long as kids in the rest of the state.

The settlement comes at a crossroads for the department. County supervisors fired the last permanent director over the summer, and in the last six months interim director Marjorie Kelly has focused an outsider's eye on the agency's failings. She was determined to close MacLaren, something her predecessors had talked about for years, and to settle rather than stonewall the lawsuit. With a new permanent director arriving next week, that suit and Kelly's changes could create momentum for lasting gains.

Of course, inertia and looming county budget cuts could reverse this progress. Still, this is a hopeful moment for the thousands of neglected and abused children in Los Angeles County. Pity it took such turmoil to reach this point.

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