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L.A. County supervisors discuss troubled foster care contractor

Board meets behind closed doors over Teens Happy Homes, found to have repeatedly misused funds and placed children in homes where they were abused, but no action is announced.

April 30, 2013|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. County supervisors are considering terminating the county's contract with the Teens Happy Homes foster care agency.
L.A. County supervisors are considering terminating the county's… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County supervisors met behind closed doors Tuesday to consider terminating their decades-long relationship with Teens Happy Homes, a private foster care provider found by officials to have repeatedly misused funds and placed children in homes where they were abused.

"The contractor should lose any contract it has," Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said in an interview Tuesday. "They are an irresponsible, unsafe provider. We'll discuss it in executive session."

No action was announced publicly after the session, but one source familiar with the discussion said Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning was instructed to prepare options to correct the problems. A Teens' official declined to comment.

The Times reported Sunday that questionable financial practices proliferated at Teens in recent years. County social workers also found that children suffered abuse and neglect in the agency's homes.

An infant, Tajiere Goldsmith, died a suspicious death after being sent to a foster mother who had previously been banned twice from the program — for two-year periods — after complaints that she had abused children were sustained. Top administrators said they obtained jobs at the agency after agreeing to pay $139,000. Between 2008 and 2011, 1,154 children lived in the agency's homes.

"Why is it that we can't just stop sending children to them?" asked Supervisor Gloria Molina as the county board debated proposals to increase oversight of 50 private foster family agencies that receive millions of public dollars annually.

The board will decide in two weeks on a proposal by member Zev Yaroslavsky to fund six or seven additional monitors to track the agencies' finances.

"The Department of Children and Family Services does not have the resources currently to do the kind of full-court press on these [foster care agencies] and group homes that we demand," Yaroslavsky said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas also won approval for a one-month study of ways to improve audits of the agencies.

"That which is being done currently is simply inadequate. It's broken and simply needs to be fixed," he said.

The county has funded only 3 1/2 workers to conduct financial audits once a decade, said Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe.

In Teens' case, the last audit was completed in 2003. Another audit is underway but might not be released for four months, Watanabe said.

Under questioning by Yaroslavsky, Watanabe acknowledged that her office has uncovered evidence of possible "fraud" at Teens. She said her department will decide soon whether to refer the case to the district attorney for possible criminal prosecution. She apologized for not alerting supervisors about her findings earlier.

"We fell short on this one. I'll admit to that. We did not do a very good job," she said.

In an interview, Molina said she was frustrated that Children's Services officials did not move more quickly to cut off Teens' funding. "They think about their responsibility to themselves before they think about their responsibility to the kids," she said.

During the public debate Tuesday, she said Teens had "three major violations where children have died." County officials declined to elaborate.

Molina said she had been informed by county officials that one case two years ago involved "a whistle-blower who came to [the county] ... and said that [Teens] CEO [Beautina Robinson] said, 'I was supposed to fib to you' " about the circumstances of a death.

"Three strikes means something in baseball and it should have meant something here the first time," Molina said.

Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County's Juvenile Court, said he was dismayed that it had taken so long for the county to act against Teens.

"The Board of Supervisors and the Department of Children and Family Services should have done something a long time ago," Nash said. "Hopefully, [Teens will] finally be put out of business."

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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