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L.A. County severs ties to foster agency Teens Happy Homes

The move comes amid allegations against staff and foster parents of financial mismanagement and child abuse. The board's decision was unanimous.

June 11, 2013|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • “I am a full-grown man now, but trying to tell this story made it difficult for me to hold myself together,” said Jeff Castillo, who was interviewed extensively by county officials after his account of severe beatings in Teens Happy Homes foster care appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
“I am a full-grown man now, but trying to tell this story made it difficult… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel its decades-long relationship with a foster care contractor amid allegations of financial mismanagement and child abuse at the hands of staff and foster parents.

The move came after weeks of closed-door debates about the fate of Teens Happy Homes following a Times investigation outlining the agency's problematic history.

Supervisors Gloria Molina and Michael D. Antonovich had pushed to end the contract, saying many children there were living under unsafe conditions but struggled to get a third supervisor's support. At its Tuesday meeting, the board unanimously canceled the contract without comment.

Foster care contractor: In the June 12 Section A, an article about Los Angeles County supervisors cutting ties with foster care contractor Teens Happy Homes identified Fiona Gonsier as a member of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission. Gonsier is a candidate for the commission, not a current member.

The decision removes a troubled player from the county's foster care network. But it also puts further stress on a system struggling to find families willing to take in children. Officials hope that most of Teens' children can remain with their current parents under a new foster care provider, but they worry some may drop out.

Between 2008 and 2011, the county had 1,154 children living in a group home and foster family homes overseen by Teens, and it paid the agency up to $3.6 million annually.

Over the same period, 240 allegations of abuse or neglect were filed on behalf of youths at those homes, a Times analysis of child abuse hotline data found. Teens' rate of nearly two allegations for each home was more than twice the average for foster care providers across the state.

Under the terms of the decision, the county will give Teens a 90-day notice that its contract is being terminated. The contract allows the county to cancel without having to explain why or face a penalty, officials said.

County supervisors Tuesday ordered the Department of Children and Family Services to help Teens' foster parents try to seek licenses directly from the state or connect with other foster care contractors so children now in their care can remain so, if the homes are deemed safe.

Teens' Chief Executive Beautina Robinson and the agency's attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Many child welfare advocates applauded the county's decision and said they suspected that the true rate of abuse at many foster care agencies is higher than reported because victims fail to disclose incidents out of fear of retaliation.

Fiona Gonsier, a member of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission, said she had counseled a young woman who experienced sexual abuse in a Teens home but declined to file a complaint out of fear that her younger brother, a current Teens foster child, would be harmed.

"She told me horrific accounts of what happened to her," Gonsier said.

In recent years, one child died in the care of a foster parent chosen by Teens despite a severe abuse history documented through state records. Other examinations by auditors suggested Teens' chief executive had improperly enriched herself with money intended for abused children. And a foster youth deemed "credible" by authorities said Teens' staff regularly placated youths with drugs and alcohol.

That complainant, Jeff Castillo, said he underwent a thorough and skeptical interview by county investigators after his account of severe beatings appeared in The Times. DCFS Director Philip Browning subsequently said he determined that Castillo was telling the truth.

"I am a full-grown man now, but trying to tell this story made it difficult for me to hold myself together," Castillo said.

Some allegations of financial wrongdoing had been known for years by the county's auditor-controller. At a recent board meeting, the auditor-controller apologized for not having informed county supervisors of the specifics until The Times' report.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is evaluating whether to press criminal charges in the case, a spokeswoman said last week.

As supervisors acted to end the contract with Teens, their lawyers have denied a Times public records request for supporting documents related to a recent audit of Teens' finances. A summary of the audit shows it includes information about a top official at another foster care contractor who accepted $19,000 from Teens even though auditors found no evidence that any work was performed.

County lawyers said some of the records were exempt from disclosure under a provision of the law that allows information involved in a criminal investigation to be sealed. They also cited a law that requires the county to balance whether the public interest would be best served by disclosure.

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