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L.A. County's foster care system loses a safety net

Among 329 employees laid off from Superior Court were six "supervisors"; from the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

May 01, 2010|Sandy Banks

They were simply positions on a payroll list: six "supervisors" among 329 employees who lost their jobs in March during the first round of payroll cuts in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system.

But their jobs involved more than pushing paper or telling people what to do. They were professional children's advocates, counseling hundreds of volunteers assigned to some of the county's most vulnerable children.

Their termination ended more than 30 years of public funding for the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, known as CASA, an effort long considered a safety net — tiny and tightly stretched — for Los Angeles County's beleaguered foster care system.

The CASA supervisors helped volunteers harness the legal system and access community services — find eyeglasses for a foster child, arrange psychiatric treatment, alert a judge to a dangerous foster home or neglectful social worker.

It's a route to better communication and ultimately safer situations for foster children. Children like the baby who starved to death because doctors and police officers and social workers didn't share information.

Or 2-year old Viola Vanclief, who died in a home that was run by an agency accused of hitting, choking and whipping other foster children.

Or 7-year-old Dae'von Bailey, who was killed by his mother's ex-boyfriend after telling anybody who would listen that the man had been abusing him.

CASA volunteers listen, ask questions, demand changes. Children with advocates spend less time in foster care, research shows, and have fewer disruptions in their lives.

The layoffs weren't a philosophical choice. The shrinking budget has already forced salary cuts, shuttered courtrooms and forced the court to shut down one day a month. "There's no more fat to cut," said union representative Milo Brown. "They have to cut meat now."

Very lean meat. There are enough CASA volunteers to serve only a tiny fraction of the more than 20,000 children in foster care in the county.

Last year, 569 children were assigned special advocates. This year, the cuts will reduce that number by 200.

The private fundraising group Friends of CASA is trying to pick up some of the slack, hiring one of the displaced supervisors and training volunteers to answer phones, screen cases and file court orders.

"That means four people trying to do the work of nine," said Bruce Herron, the nonprofit's interim director.

And it means hundreds of children waiting for a helper and a guide. Like Trinity, who aged out of foster care at 18 and is homeless now at 21.

::

Eight years ago, in middle school, my daughter made friends with Trinity, a new classmate from a foster home, a comfortable Northridge condo with a couple she called Mom and Dad.

But, a year later they adopted a toddler and didn't have room for her anymore.

Trinity moved to a group home — her ninth placement in as many years. It was a few blocks outside our school's attendance zone, so she had to transfer midyear to a Chatsworth campus. She didn't fit in with the girls at her new school or her roommates in the new home.

She spent years bouncing among "placements" from the Antelope Valley to South Los Angeles. Our sleepovers and trips to Skateland stopped. We heard stories: She'd grown sullen, was skipping school, running off. Sometimes she was assigned a social worker, sometimes a probation officer.

Occasionally she'd call from a pay phone in the middle of the night. I'd pick her up and she'd stay with us for a few days. Sometimes the group home tracked me down, sometimes I talked her into going back. And sometimes I just left her at the Orange Line stop with car fare, a sack lunch and a $20 phone card.

On Trinity's 16th birthday, my daughter and I headed down to her group home in Orange County with a cake and a gift: slippers and soft flannel pajamas. But after an hour in rainy rush-hour traffic, we found out she had been transferred that morning to a locked facility because she threw a phone at a staffer during an argument.

I was warned that Trinity was dangerous; she needed professional help, not a hug from someone's well-meaning mom.

"She's unbalanced and very angry," her caseworker said, as if that were an odd response to a life of being unwanted.

Wouldn't you be angry if you had no family? Not a single person in your life who would care for you, without being paid to do it?

::

A special advocate might have made a difference in Trinity's life — persuaded a judge to leave her at her old school, let her visit her brother in his foster home, kept track of her homecoming photos and old journals so they weren't tossed out when she changed homes.

"The social worker can't be there at all times," said Herron, a 12-year volunteer who just finished a two-year effort to get a teenage boy out of a group home and back home with his reformed father.

He'll have to reorganize the CASA program, making it more "volunteer-centric" he said. "The court has been generous in its support. But it's a failed model. We can't keep paying people to do this."

That means they need more volunteers: people willing to spend about an hour a week for the next two years helping one child.

In the long run, he said, that might generate more community support and more contributions. Maybe Clippers owner Donald Sterling's organization can put some money behind it, he said.

"This will be a very difficult year. But we will be successful."

And if the short-term cost is painful, at least there may be one long-term gain: more children who know that someone chooses to care for them. An advocate who isn't being paid.

For more information about CASA, go to http://www.casala.org.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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