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Checks of Foster Homes Cut Back

The state budget crisis is forcing a reduction in inspections of facilities that care for children and the disabled.

October 27, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

California's system of monitoring foster homes, child day-care centers and facilities for elderly and disabled adults is undergoing a painful transformation, forced by the budget crisis to sharply reduce inspections.

Instead of the current annual spot checks of the more than 90,000 licensed facilities, 10% of them will be randomly selected for surprise visits each year. Inspections of the rest will be reduced to once every five years.

State officials said the change still will allow for dangerous conditions to be rooted out. But many advocates of foster children and the elderly contend that the reduced inspection schedule threatens the health and safety of thousands of the state's most vulnerable wards. About 1.1 million people live or are cared for in licensed care facilities under the state's charge, according to officials.

David Dodds, chief of the state's Community Care Licensing Division, said the change is a response to a $7.5-million reduction in state funding for the division, to about $115 million this year. The licensing division, unlike some other child-welfare programs, receives little federal funding and it has cut its workforce to 1,150, about 100 positions below the level of two years ago. As a result, Dodds said, the agency lacks the manpower to adequately inspect all of the licensed care facilities annually.

He said the new plan will allow inspectors to concentrate on the 15,000 complaints lodged yearly against care providers. Nearly 90% of license revocations stem from such complaints, rather than from yearly inspections. The change also permits more time for other priorities, such as processing new applications from prospective care providers and doing criminal background checks, he said.

"No one really wants to reduce our presence. But if I have a budget to manage, my job is to make sure we continue with priorities," said Dodds. "We could double inspections to every six months and not really double protection for kids. But if we don't make a complaint visit, it's a real problem."

Still, the agency is treading warily. The budget package passed by Legislature authorized fewer inspections. But licensing officials must report back to lawmakers each year and, if violations and citations spike upwards, can seek funding to increase the random inspections. Children's advocates said the new system is a dangerous step back to an era of spotty oversight. Even good providers, they argue, may become lax without an annual check.

"It's only human nature that when people are not monitored they slide," said Carole Schauffer, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. "That's not to say there aren't some wonderful foster parents doing a wonderful job. But these kids are basically at the mercy of their caretakers."

The licensing inspections focus on physical conditions of the home as well as the emotional and physical well-being of youngsters.

Tira Logan, a state analyst, has a combined caseload of about 100 foster homes and homes for the developmentally disabled located in a broad swath of territory extending from Long Beach to Covina.

Logan recently went out to a foster home on a suburban street in Bellflower to ensure that there was nutritious food in the refrigerator, that medications were properly put away and that locks safeguarded the garage workshop, among other items on her checklist related to the safety of the 16-month-old foster child sheltered there.

In the bathroom, she made sure the toilet was working and used a small gauge to see that water temperatures were not hot enough to scald. In the bedroom, filled with stuffed animals, she made sure that lights were bright enough and checked the thickness of the mattresses on a crib used by the curly-haired foster girl. She looked in the yard, garages and sheds for hazards and made a cursory inspection of the primary vehicle used to transport children.

Everything seemed in order and Logan gave the house a passing grade.

Later in the afternoon, at a Long Beach home, a foster mother admitted that she had not been conducting required fire drills with the three children -- one foster child and two for whom she is legal guardian. The mother promised to conduct the drills, and Logan found little else to fault in the home.

Logan spent about 20 minutes speaking privately with the bright-eyed foster child, a 5-year-old boy. During such conversations, Logan will ask children if they feel safe, what they like and don't like about their surroundings, what activities they're involved in and whether any of their personal rights have been violated.

She would typically spend four or five days each week on such scheduled annual inspections and interviews. The new system, she said, will allow her to focus instead on homes with problems. She'll have more time, for example, to interview children and their teachers and advise foster parents on avoiding trouble.

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