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INNOCENTS BETRAYED

With time and help, a mom may learn to conquer anger

An L.A. County program returns abused children to their troubled homes, emphasizing parental training over foster care. But there are risks.

December 13, 2009|By Garrett Therolf
  • Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times (kuemf7nc-span/2000/2000x1333 )

The well-dressed woman in hoop earrings and glitter eye shadow took the podium. "Hello," she said, her voice gruff and resonant. "My name is Darlene, and I'm an alcoholic."

"I'm the alcoholic who was sweetly hit upside the head when Children's Services took my son away two days before Thanksgiving last year."

As Darlene Compton spoke on a November evening, her toddler son wandered the linoleum floor of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting hall in South Los Angeles. Fussing as the night session entered its third hour, he smiled fleetingly when the recovering addicts handed him candies and a Twinkie.

"I'm the alcoholic who doesn't like dealing with my son sometimes, but it's not his fault he's here. It's my fault."

Descending from the podium after a few minutes, she grabbed the boy's arm. "Shut. Your. Mouth," she told him, her long, manicured fingernail pressing his shoulder. They retreated to a bathroom whose walls barely muffled her yelling. He let out a wail.

It has often been uncomfortable for each, but 41-year-old Darlene Compton and 23-month-old Jontay are together again.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the largest county-run system in the nation, is giving second chances -- and sometimes more -- to hundreds of its most troubled parents in an effort to keep kids out of foster care.

It's part of what experts see as one of the nation's most promising experiments in child welfare. It is also one of the riskiest, putting many more children back into homes once deemed unfit, where some suffer further injury or even death.

Social workers have long sought to reunify families rent by abuse and neglect, based partly on research showing that foster care often leads to transient placements and ends in homelessness, joblessness or incarceration. The money that goes into foster care, family preservationists say, would be better spent on improving the skills of biological parents or supporting other relatives willing to take in abused children.

Los Angeles County, Alameda County in Northern California, the state of Florida and other smaller jurisdictions are pushing the approach much harder -- having embraced financial incentives that encourage reunification in even the most challenging cases.

Normally, the federal government pays child-welfare agencies according to how many children are in foster care. But in 2007, Los Angeles County agreed to accept a fixed sum for such care. If it exceeds that amount, the county must pay the difference. If it spends less, the county can use the savings to reduce child abuse and neglect as it sees fit.

"The thinking is that you don't need a perfect mother, you just need a good enough mother," said Jorja Leap, a child welfare expert at UCLA who trains social workers for the Department of Children and Family Services. "Orphanages are gone. Loving strangers are gone. This is kind of the least bad alternative."

When social workers reunited Darlene Compton and Jontay in May, they knew she had been off crack cocaine for just six months and had a history of failed alcohol and drug recoveries. She'd engaged in prostitution, hadn't had a regular job in 10 years and displayed a sometimes vicious temper, according to internal records and interviews.

Since 1999, they had received 13 calls from people concerned about her parenting, records show. Over the years, all five of her children either had been removed from her care by social workers or taken in by relatives.

But with Jontay, Compton was swiftly given another chance -- with fewer obstacles and more services than in the past.

Upfront, the department is paying hundreds of dollars to address her many needs. It bought the bunk beds and a dresser for her son's bedroom. It pays a child-care provider who picks up Jontay each morning shortly after dawn and drops him off at 1:30 in the afternoon. It pays the teacher who picks up Compton for parenting and anger management classes and has bought the bus pass that takes her to job training classes.

Because her son moved back in, Compton also qualified for other benefits: a $1,404 federal housing voucher, a $367 food stamp benefit and a $328 welfare check.

"I'm blessed," Compton told her AA group that night.

Violent encounter

In 2007, Compton was living in a homeless encampment near the corner of Long Beach and Alondra boulevards in Compton. She'd moved there figuring her abusive boyfriend wouldn't beat her in front of other men. "We had couches and beds there," she said. "You could live there."

Police arrested her on an outstanding drug possession warrant, and soon she was in jail. When she got out, she had no money for the bus. "I was thinking that I was going to get me a trick."

A man pulled up in a white Mustang. After he refused to pay her for sex, Compton said, "I flipped."

The man took a pocket knife and tried to slash her neck, she said. She fended him off, but the knife slashed her hand, leaving a deep red wound across her palm

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