Big-Government Foster Care
Residents of Los Angeles County, reeling from allegations of gross incompetence and probable negligence by Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), have been blessed with the creation of a blue ribbon commission, set up by county supervisors. The allegations arose after social workers and supervisors failed to prevent the torture and murder of a young child in Palmdale, despite ample evidence that the child was in great danger.
DCFS director Browning moved to immediately fire four employees associated with this tragedy. Seeking to fire employees so quickly is in itself is a kind of reform, since union rules, including a ridiculous appeal process, make it almost impossible to fire a social worker for mere incompetence. Similar incompetence once resulted in a two-week suspension. Just ask Rocio La Voie.
Ms. La Voie received a ten-day suspension for actions not so different from the incoherence exhibited by the four employees associated with the horror in Palmdale. Indeed, Ms. La Voie believed that her original suspension was too harsh, and appealed it!
Mr. Browning has his hands full with recalcitrant unions, a much too high percentage of impossible-to-fire employees, and politicians who have gotten it wrong, decade after decade. During the past 15 years, the number of children in foster care has decreased from a top of over 65,000 to a little over 21,000 today. Yet the budget for DCFS is within about 10% of what it was, when foster care placements were at a peak. By any measure, this large reduction in foster care placements, while maintaining a similar budget, should have resulted in significant savings, as well as a huge improvement in overall care for our abused and neglected children. Yet there has been no savings, and by all accounts, no improvement in overall care.
In the Palmdale case, Mr. Browning has shown a willingness to take on the union, as a first small step towards real reform. However, it wasn't such a difficult call, since the incompetence demonstrated by these workers was so egregious. The test will come from future cases, which won't have a tortured child and extensive media coverage.
So where are we now? And what reforms will this blue ribbon commission recommend? It is difficult to imagine that the head of this commission doesn't already know what recommendations shall come out of the current investigation. Some of us worry about the "power of pedigreed professionals."
The head of the commission is David Sanders. David Sanders was a previous director of DCFS for three years and couldn't fix things then. Not even close.
Later, after three other directors left (one for the Casey Foundation), Sanders wanted his old job back. Sanders lost out to Browning and is now, with the commission, in a perfect position to "ankle-bite, and peck away."
Sanders worked for the Casey foundation for over a decade and advocates the implementation of Casey's foster care agenda, which has always included keeping children away from foster care as long as possible, maintaining and supporting at-risk families, and seeing foster care as a solution only in the most extreme cases.
Some worry that this emphasis on family reunification and keeping birth families together at all cost, while noble, risks keeping abused and neglected children in birth homes for too long a period, risking further abuses.
The county now wants to hire an additional 150 social workers and extend training for up to a year. An earth-shaking event occurred recently when a social worker in training recently flunked out of the Academy. The shortage of social workers was so acute that everyone who entered this training Academy would pass. Think about that for second, and be very afraid. DCFS director Browning has promised to put a stop to this practice, and there is no reason to doubt his word.
And finally, the most recent kerfuffle is the continuing drama of children's services inability to find placements within 24 hours, for foster children removed from their homes.
Social workers, unable to find placements for these children, put them in holding cells or err centers euphemistically called the "Children's Welcome Center."
The holding locations don't have enough volunteers to properly feed and or manage the needs of infants, or maintain order, in controlling a volatile mix of young teens from various backgrounds. The police were called on more than one occasion. This is reminiscent of the old McLaren Hall, which in the bad old days sort of functioned as a jail for foster children, who couldn't be placed in foster homes.
To be fair, no child spent more than a few days in these holding centers. And nobody believes that it's optimal -- not even the Times, who get to write about it every six months or so. The situation is so bad that various nonprofit law firms are threatening lawsuits and fines to force the county to allocate funding to mitigate the problem. A tall order during bankrupt times.
The publicity surrounding the torture death of Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale caused an increase in the number of calls to the hotline. The county had more foster children than they could handle. Ominously, this meant numbers of abused children would not have come to the attention of authorities without the publicity from this murder. Director Browning plans to increase contracting with nonprofit foster agencies to meet the demand for bed space.
However, the concern, as always when it comes to agency nonprofits, is how far DCFS will go in overlooking unscrupulous practices to assure that the county has enough bed space (read: money) for abused and neglected children? Audits have shown mismanaged spending and large financial handouts to friends and families.
There was always an unwritten rule that as long as the children are properly cared for, the county would kind of, sort of overlook tens of grand here and there, as long as one doesn't take too much. Unless, of course, a child dies, in which case all bets are off.
Part of the problem is how CEOs of foster agencies received county contracts. Contracts were awarded to individuals who were not properly vetted and were unqualified. Often minority politics played a role toward obtaining contracts. Proposals were accepted, if completed properly, and if the agency had enough initial money to begin operations.
Agency board members were never scrutinized; one was recently found to be in prison while still serving on the board of directors. It was not necessary for CEOs to have college degrees; CEOs needed only to delegate necessary tasks to those who did have proper qualifications. At some foster agencies, board members, and CEOs, were some of the least educated, and most unqualified, among their own employees!
However, all this is old news, and the real scandal is that once again, it took the torture and death of an innocent child to trigger momentum towards reform. Momentum, which will eventually peter out, until the next child dies.
And we begin the process all over again.
Joshua Allen is a writer in Los Angeles.