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THE CHILD MILL

L.A. County officials to stop sending children to foster agency

Responding to new allegations of financial malfeasance and abuse, county officials have decided to stop sending children to the private foster care agency Teens Happy Homes.

May 14, 2013|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeff Castillo, 29, was a foster child in Teens Happy Homes. His said his accusations of abuse -- including severe beatings -- rarely resulted in investigations. "I went from making complaints once a week to once a month to once every six months," he said.
Jeff Castillo, 29, was a foster child in Teens Happy Homes. His said his accusations… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Responding to new allegations of financial malfeasance and abuse, Los Angeles County officials have decided to stop sending children to a private foster care agency that has been responsible for more than 1,100 youths in recent years.

The action was taken after an examination of Teens Happy Homes, published in The Times last month, revealed questionable spending and repeated instances of abuse.

Fresh allegations surfaced in an ongoing audit obtained by The Times that found at least $100,000 in suspect payments: Nearly $30,000 went toward chief executive Beautina "Tina" Robinson's personal expenses, including her car and credit card bills. An additional $70,000 covered the salaries of Robinson associates who did little or no work for the agency.

Additional records show that Maurice Mitchell, then president of the Teens Happy Homes board, retained his position while in jail before being convicted in a real estate scheme that involved identity theft, forged documents and more than $260,000 in stolen money.

Philip Browning, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said he had not been aware of the allegations against Mitchell until they were brought to his attention in an interview.

Browning also was told of complaints of physical abuse from a former Teens foster child, who recently came forward after reading about the agency's problems in the newspaper.

Browning said the allegations will have to be confirmed. If true, "I can't imagine us being in business with people who have done this," he said.

Teens officials declined to comment on the latest audit findings and Browning's decision.

The county now is considering even stronger action to terminate its relationship with Teens. Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Gloria Molina urged the county to cancel its contract and remove all children from the agency's care.

The two supervisors have not been able to secure a needed third vote from the five-member board. Supervisors Don Knabe, Zev Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the South Los Angeles district where Teens is headquartered, declined to comment.

Under Teens Happy Homes' contract, the supervisors can terminate the relationship without cause or penalty, according to a DCFS spokeswoman. Los Angeles County almost entirely funds Teens' budget — up to $3.6 million a year.

Michael Nash, the presiding judge of L.A. County's Juvenile Court, and Leslie Starr Heimov, who leads the court-appointed law firm representing foster children, have called on the supervisors to sever the contract.

That action can be taken, Heimov said, without having to disrupt the placement of children whose foster parents are providing good care. "If the parents meet standards," she said, "the county needs to assist them with a new certification by a new contractor. The county has successfully managed large, sudden closures of contractors in the past."

The now three-year-long audit of Teens' alleged financial abuses probably will not be officially released for another four months because of potential appeals.

The documents obtained by The Times show that in addition to Robinson's $112,000 salary, the agency provided $23,032 to cover the down payment, warranty, monthly payments, insurance and satellite radio for her personal car. The agency also paid her personal credit card expenses totaling $5,671, the auditors said.

The $70,000 in questionable salary payments went to Robinson's daughter, one of her former foster children and another person.

Her daughter, who was listed as the agency's operations manager, was seriously ill for all of 2009 but was not placed on medical leave. She received her full salary.

Robinson's former foster child was living in Alabama at the time and there was no evidence he did any maintenance work the agency had paid him to do, the audit said. The third person, whose relationship with Robinson is unknown, received $19,000 in pay but had no personnel file on record at Teens Happy Homes and was unknown to the supervisor in charge.

The auditors painted a picture of an agency in financial chaos, with few meaningful controls.

County Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe has said she is considering forwarding allegations of fraud by Teens Happy Homes officials for criminal investigation.

The audit did not look beyond the agency's financial problems, but an earlier Times investigation found that Teens had a significantly high rate of child abuse complaints compared with the state average.

Jeff Castillo, the former foster youth who lived in Teens group homes and recently came forward with abuse allegations, said his tongue had been severed and his hands scarred with bite marks during beatings by staff members after he complained to social workers.

He said his accusations rarely resulted in investigations. "I went from making complaints once a week to once a month to once every six months," Castillo said.

Castillo said Robinson told all foster children to call her "Don Tina." To placate the youths, they were provided drugs, alcohol and tobacco, he said.

Castillo, 29, later joined the military and now works for a court receiver responsible for rehabilitating apartment buildings.

Teens was "supposed to protect abused children like myself, but they just picked up where my parents left off," Castillo said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

This is one in a series of occasional articles on children living in California's privatized foster care system.

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