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Supervisors admit lingering problems at foster care office

The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services facility, cited by a whistle-blower nearly a year ago, remains a 'dumping ground' for troubled children, Gloria Molina says.

May 23, 2012|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Nearly a year after a social worker blew the whistle, Los Angeles County supervisors acknowledged Tuesday that a "crisis" had developed in a Wilshire Boulevard office building used to house difficult-to-place foster children and requested a new plan to house them.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said the office near MacArthur Park, where the county's child protection agency has its nighttime, emergency operations, has become a "dumping ground" for hundreds of the county's most troubled children when social workers can't find a suitable foster home.

A recent visit by her staff found a chaotic scene, including a 9-month-old infant who had been present at a drug bust, three pregnant teenagers and recently released juvenile offenders who were getting little sleep while social workers frantically juggled a multitude of after-hours child abuse investigations. Some of the older children reportedly use drugs openly in the office, Molina said.

"We're going to have a child die there," Molina said, noting that about 100 children spend more than eight hours at the facility each month. "Someone is going to get hurt, and it's going to be our responsibility."

Lincoln Saul, a Department of Children and Family Services social worker who served at the office, raised concerns about the ad hoc shelter a year ago. Saul has acted as a whistle-blower about conditions at the office building for years and many of his previous complaints were substantiated.

But not last year.

After he filed a complaint, state regulators determined that the office building was an appropriate place to house children for short stays. Saul was dismissed as an attention seeker by a Department of Children and Family Services acting deputy director, and county supervisors refused to comment on his complaints.

But a subsequent report by the county's auditor-controller confirmed many problems cited by Saul, including a lack of criminal checks for social workers and the need for building improvements.

Newly appointed child welfare agency Director Philip Browning has moved to correct the problems. He said he hopes to open a dorm-like short-term shelter at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for at least some of the hard-to-place children.

The center would offer comprehensive medical and mental health assessments to help make better foster home placements.

A new computer tracking system has been added for children placed in the office building's waiting areas, he said. "We are trying to identify the children who use this the most to see what we can learn," Browning said.

The department is also working to renegotiate contracts with foster care contractors to help open additional homes that are willing to take children with special needs at all hours, he said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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