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L.A.'s beleaguered foster care kids

Recent tragedies could make the system more dangerous for children.

September 16, 2009|Richard Wexler | Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection. NCCPR's analysis of Los Angeles child welfare is available at nccpr.org

Gerardo R., as he is known in court documents, never beat his children. He did not torture them or stab them or brutalize them. He was a loving father who'd always been a part of his children's lives -- and when their mother lost custody, he immediately stepped forward. But he had to fight for his children's right to live with him.

Why? Because he was unable to afford housing deemed satisfactory to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. For that, his children were denied the chance to live with their father and even had their right to have him in their lives terminated forever, until a California appellate court intervened.

There is nothing unusual about such cases. Contrary to the stereotype, most parents who lose their children to the county and to foster care are nothing like the sadists and brutes who make headlines. Tragedies like the ones this summer -- in which two youngsters, Dae'von Bailey and Lars Sanchez, were killed within family units that the county had evaluated -- are rare. Far more common are cases in which parental poverty is confused with parental neglect. Other cases fall squarely between the extremes, the parents neither all victim nor all villain.

As it turns out, it is a serious mistake to pull children out of their homes just because their parents are poor or imperfect, just as it is a mistake to leave them in homes where parents are dangerous brutes. A landmark study of 15,000 typical foster care cases showed that children placed in foster care usually fared worse in later life than comparably maltreated children left in their own homes.

The foster children were more likely to commit crimes, more likely to become pregnant as teenagers and less likely to be able to hold a job as young adults. Another study found that only one in five former foster children was doing well as a young adult. That's not really surprising, considering that foster children often bounce from placement to placement, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone.

These everyday horrors of foster care don't get much notice; they accumulate over years, and they are often hidden by confidentiality laws that protect not the children but the child welfare system itself. So the public, understandably, assumes that the only mistake the system makes is to keep children in dangerous homes.

In fact, agencies like the Department of Children and Family Services can be arbitrary, capricious and cruel. They do indeed leave some children in dangerous homes, even as they take more children from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help.

The two errors are directly related.

When children are left in dangerous homes, it's almost always because a caseworker didn't have the time to talk to one more witness, make one more phone call to law enforcement or check another record. What's overwhelming those workers is a huge number of false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. By the time the court cases were finished, the county had spent years keeping Gerardo R.'s family apart -- time, in effect, stolen from other cases and other children who could have been in real danger.

The number of Los Angeles County children taken from their parents has increased almost every year since 2003. Los Angeles County takes away proportionately more children from their parents than many other major metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Miami, where child welfare systems have been hailed for their progress in keeping children safe.

Now, the response by members of the county Board of Supervisors to the recent high-profile tragedies is likely to force more kids out of their homes, without any guarantee that such action would make for the best outcome. Zev Yaroslavsky is scapegoating efforts to keep families together. Gloria Molina has declared that heads will roll, which just pushes frontline workers to remove children from parents as a matter of self-protection, no matter how flimsy the rationale or how much harm foster care itself does to kids.

It's no wonder some lawyers say they're already seeing a foster care panic -- a sudden surge in removals of children from their homes. That only further overloads the system, making it even less likely that the next child in real danger will be found. That's why, across the country, such panics have been followed by increases in deaths of children "known to the system."

The tragic deaths of Bailey and Sanchez should not lead to responses that make all children less safe. Members of the Board of Supervisors should put the children ahead of their own penchant for grandstanding and avoid hasty panic reactions. They must send a message that caseworkers will be accountable for all mistakes but scapegoated for none. That means the investigation of recent deaths just getting underway should be expanded to include cases in which families allege their children were wrongfully taken away. At the very least, that would let caseworkers and the public know that taking a child from a safe home is every bit as harmful as leaving a child in a dangerous one.

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