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Foster care errors costing county

Social workers often fail to inspect homes within the required period, a violation of federal rules that allowed $6 million to slip away last year.

February 14, 2007|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County child welfare workers frequently fail to comply with federal rules on monitoring the homes of foster children living with relatives -- a problem that has cost the county an estimated $6 million over the last year, officials said Tuesday.

Though the exact number remains unclear, at least hundreds of homes went without timely reassessments by social workers, whose job is to ensure, through annual inspections, that the residences meet health and safety requirements after a child is placed.

Without such reassessments, the county cannot receive reimbursement from the federal government to pay related foster parents for the care they provide, leaving the county to decide between cutting off funding or spending its own money.

The assessment backlog comes less than two years after the county promised to improve the way social workers monitor the homes under a legal settlement with children's advocates.

Those advocates had said the county was not doing enough to ensure that children were housed in clean, safe homes.

"It was getting better at one time but now it seems to be deteriorating," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco and a lawyer who worked on the case. "We don't know for a fact that those homes remain safe.... Everyone is being hurt by this."

On Tuesday, county supervisors ordered the Department of Children and Family Services to draw up a plan to end late inspections and to consider hiring an outside firm to conduct the assessments.

About 11,000 of the county's 20,500 foster children live with relatives, a significant increase over the last decade as social workers have sought to reduce the number of children placed with strangers or in group homes. Those caring for the child receive from a few hundred dollars to as much as $1,500 a month, depending on a child's needs.

Department of family services Director Patricia Ploehn said social workers had been hampered in their reassessment efforts by an inadequate computer tracking system, which the county is overhauling.

She acknowledged that earlier confusion over which social workers were supposed to update the computer system also hampered home inspection efforts. The inspections are the responsibility of a unit that includes 72 specially assigned social workers.

Ploehn, who said she hopes to eradicate the backlog by May, stressed that major safety and health problems at the homes probably would have been caught during regular monthly visits by other social workers -- a contention that some advocates dispute.

"I want those homes assessed and approved on a regular basis to make sure there are no issues," she said.

The department still is trying to determine how many children and homes were affected, how much money was paid and how long homes went without annual inspections. Ploehn estimated that most inspections were 30 to 60 days late, but some could have been much later.

Ploehn said she has ordered a thorough evaluation of every case involving relatives caring for foster children to identify the scope of the problem. Meanwhile, more than 20 social workers throughout the department have been reassigned to handle the backlog.

In November, the department identified 1,300 homes that were overdue for an annual assessment. Since then, social workers have completed nearly 900 of them, Ploehn said.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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