Los Angeles County's child protection agency has cut the number of children in foster care by half over the last decade, driving detentions down and speeding the time it takes to return children to their parents -- without an increase in abuse reports, county figures show.
This year, the number of children in the county's foster care system fell below 25,000 for the first time since peaking at more than 52,000 in 1997, even though the number of children in the county has risen over the last decade, according to the county's Department of Children and Family Services.
The change marks a notable success in remaking the county's long-troubled child welfare agency, which once emphasized removing children in the name of safety -- leaving many in foster care for years, where they sometimes suffered more abuse and neglect.
Today, social workers are encouraged to keep children at home by helping parents deal with problems believed to underlie abuse, including drug addiction, unemployment and mental illness. At the same time, the county has doubled the number of adoptions, increased the number of child-parent reunions and reduced the time such reunifications take.
In 2000, social workers took an average of two years to return children to their parents. Last year, it took them nine months.
"I think we've come to realize that a child's need to be in their own home and in a permanent home is important," said Patricia S. Ploehn, director of the county children's services department. "I don't think that there's been a time in the last 30 years where there's been so much hope that we can actually do it right this time."
Despite the changes, Ploehn acknowledged that much more work is needed. Hundreds of children live for years in group homes, and a federal court has concluded that the county fails to provide adequate mental health services to thousands of foster children.
Ploehn said her department is addressing the problems and pledged more reforms to continue reducing the number of children in foster care. But some critics have expressed concerns about the pace of change.
A prominent group of children's rights advocates has accused social workers of dismissing some abuse reports too quickly in their zeal to keep families together. And a sharp rise in child detentions over the last two years has raised concerns that the reforms may be losing their effectiveness.
After declining in the early 1980s, the nation's foster child population began a steady climb, fueled in part by the explosion of crack cocaine that swept thousands of children born to addicted parents into institutionalized care.
The numbers continued to rise through the economic recession of the early 1990s as more families grappled with poverty -- a factor often linked to child abuse. In Los Angeles, high-profile killings and abuse by parents also reinforced the belief that separating children from their families was the safest option for children.
"There was a mantra: When in doubt, detain," Ploehn said. "That was the message in the '90s. Take no risks. Take no chances."
But a growing body of research pointed to the disastrous effects of such a mind-set. Children in foster care are more likely than other children to drop out of school, commit crimes and experience mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness.
The findings prompted child-welfare advocates to urge local governments to find stable homes for foster children. In the late 1990s, national and state legislators passed laws making it easier to adopt such youngsters and providing financial incentives for local governments to accelerate the process. The number of kids in foster care began to fall gradually.
In Los Angeles, the effect was more dramatic. Three factors drove the change: an increase in adoptions, a decrease in the number of children separated from their parents and a rise in the number reunited with their parents.
Social workers began by clearing a massive backlog of pending adoptions and moved to find new parents for children in care. Local attorneys and other volunteers donated their time to help.
From 1998, the number of annual adoptions tripled to 3,069 by 2001 before falling back to about 2,000 -- nearly double the figure of a decade ago.
Social workers now reach out to relatives, churches and community groups in search of adoptive parents. The county has hired retired workers to scour the files of teenage foster children for relatives willing to take them in.
The county also embarked on an ambitious plan to change the culture of its child protective agency. Parents were no longer the enemy. Social workers were encouraged to help families stay together by linking children with mentors and parents with drug treatment, employment training, anger management and parenting classes.