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Foster Care

Pregnant and Parenting Foster Kids, Housing Homeless Vets, and a Prison Acting Class

January 22nd, 2016 by Taylor Walker


A study by First Place For Youth compares the outcomes of transition-aged foster youth who are pregnant or parenting with non-parent foster kids.

First Place for Youth is a non-profit that helps foster kids aging out of the system with housing and other services in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties.

The study, which used data from teens and young adults within the program, and found that the participants who were parents were less likely to have a job or high school diploma (or GED), and the parents had a harder time attending higher education or pursuing a career than the non-parents.

And foster kids in California are far more likely than their non-child-welfare-involved peers to be pregnant or have children of their own. According to Alliance for Children’s Rights, girls in foster care in LA are 2.5 times more likely to be pregnant by age 19 than girls not involved in the child welfare system. And 50% of 21-year-old young men aging out say they have gotten someone pregnant, compared to 19% of 21-year-old males not in foster care.

The report recommends boosting access to affordable child care, providing more parenting services to foster youth (for both moms and dads), developing a pregnancy prevention strategy, and providing extra income for foster kids who are working and going to school while raising kids.

The report also recommends that counties opt-in on CA Senate Bill 1252 to extend eligibility to age 25 for a transitional housing program, pointing out that parenting foster youth need far more support adjusting to independent adult life than non-parenting foster kids.

The study was funded by the Butler Family Fund, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Hedge Funds Care and Kaiser Foundation Hospital Fund.


On Wednesday, the US Senate voted unanimously to fund $35 million in construction work on a decrepit Department of Veterans Affairs building in Westwood to house homeless vets.

The decision is an important one, as there is a serious shortage of beds for the more than 4,000 homeless military veterans living in Los Angeles County.

If the House of Representatives approves the bill, the $35 million would provide seismic retrofitting for a portion of the historic VA campus, which has been underutilized due to its current dilapidated condition. The Senate-approved renovation will quickly provide housing for 65 veterans in need.

If completed, the a draft plan for the whole campus would create permanent housing for 900 vets and traditional housing for 700 more.

KPCC’s John Ismay has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

With more homeless veterans than any other city in the U.S., Los Angeles has been scrambling for ways to house those in need. Last year, under a settlement agreement, the V.A. agreed to repurpose the campus to help house homeless veterans.

Veterans had sued the V.A., claiming misuse of the property, which was donated to the federal government to serve those who served in the military. Instead, large sections of the campus were leased out to businesses and nonprofits who had nothing to do with veterans.


The $35 million would provide earthquake retrofits to a building that could house about 65 veterans–making the price tag more than a half million dollars per bed.

Seems steep–and the V.A. has acknowledged that demolishing the historic buildings that litter the campus and erecting new ones would be much cheaper. But the process for doing so is much slower, particularly since the government believes the existing buildings have historical value.

“The campus has a number of beautiful old buildings, that are outdated and underutilized,” said Milo Peinemann of New Directions, a non-profit organization that works to house homeless veterans.


Inmates at a California State Prison in Lancaster learn interpersonal skills and how to manage stress through meditation and acting classes led by teachers and mentors from the Strindberg Laboratory.

People Magazine’s Tiare Dunlap has more on the program. Here’s a clip:

The Strindberg Laboratory currently employs three acting teachers who are graduates of its programs in jails and homeless shelters – a number the directors say will grow to at least 10 within the year.

Teacher Tony Cedeno was serving a three-year sentence in Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles when he met Bierman and Pakarinen, who he calls “my angels from God.”

“When I met them, I was fully involved in the gangs,” Cedeno, 52, tells PEOPLE. “I came out one morning of their drama class to give notes to somebody and I wound up staying.”

Cedeno, formerly known as “Teardop,” was coping with HIV positive status and substance abuse issues when he became involved with the program. He says he “never in a million years” could have imagined acting would change the course of his life.

“I just gave it a chance,” he recalls. “I played my mother in our first show and it helped me to process a lot of feelings I was harboring and gave me a chance to look at the part I played as a son rather than what my mother had done to me.”

Most of the plays the program puts on are written or adapted by the actors themselves. This allows for a greater creative expression and helps with two practical concerns.

“It’s easier because if you do a play you have to learn lines,” Bierman says. “A lot of the guys, especially if they’re dealing with addiction, can’t remember anything.”

Cedeno contacted the couple one day after being released from jail. After participating in productions on the outside, Cedeno became a Strindberg Laboratory teacher. He now leads acting workshops at Project Alofa, a Long Beach, California, organization that assists formerly incarcerated individuals and the LGBTQ community – a role he takes extremely seriously.

“I released my tension in the theater and that’s what I do today,” he says. “I’m still clean and sober going on three years thanks to them.”

“I work extra hours because it’s like therapy for me,” he continues. “After getting shot, getting stabbed, getting thrown off of bridges, getting tied up in handcuffs, being the victim of home invasions, these people make me feel safe. I feel a safety, I feel like they’re teaching me. They’re teaching me how to be human again.”

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Teen Pregnancy Prevention, Million$ for Violence Prevention in Oakland, “Black Lives Matter” Is Top 2015 Story…and More

December 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Teen pregnancy prevention services are missing from a recently released draft list of recommendations from a national commission created to develop strategies for reducing abuse and neglect-related deaths of children, according to Marie Cohen, a former social worker and policy researcher.

Cohen says the Commission for the Elimination of Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities should recommend Congress gather data on how many of these fatalities involve kids born to teen parents, or born to parents who started having children when they were teenagers. Cohen also calls on the commission to recommend all teens—especially kids involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice system and at high risk for pregnancy—have full access to all contraception options, as well as counseling and education.

Girls in foster care in Los Angeles are 2.5 times more likely to be pregnant by age 19 than girls not involved in the child welfare system, according to statistics gathered by Alliance for Children’s Rights.

And in LA County, kids with teen mothers involved with the child welfare system experienced a rate of abuse and neglect, themselves, two to three times higher than kids born to teen moms with no DCFS-involvement, according to a 2013 report funded by the Hilton Foundation.

Second or subsequent infants born to mothers younger than 17 years old, were 11 times more likely to be murdered than firstborns from mothers who were over the age of 25, according to a national study on infant deaths between 1983-1991.

Here’s a clip from Cohen’s op-ed for the Chronicle of Social Change:

As National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy co-founder Sarah Brown recently pointed out, groups that focus on child and family well-being rarely propose interventions that begin before conception of a child. CECANF could begin to rectify this omission by including teen pregnancy prevention in its recommendations for reducing child abuse and neglect fatalities.

In her testimony before CECANF, Angela Diaz, director of New York’s Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, discussed the connection between teenage parenthood and child maltreatment fatalities. In serving for many years on a child fatality review panel, she noticed that in many of these cases, the mother began childbearing in adolescence, and had more closely spaced children thereafter.

Dr. Diaz cited a national study of deaths of infants born between 1983 and 1991, which showed that “childbearing at an early age was strongly associated with infant homicide, particularly if the mother had given birth previously.”

A second or subsequent infant born to a mother younger than 17 years old was 11 times more likely to be a homicide victim than the first child of a mother 25 or older. A second or subsequent infant born to a mother age 17 to 19 was over nine times more likely to be a homicide victim.


Even without knowing the proportion of child maltreatment deaths occurring to children of teen mothers, we already know that teen motherhood is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect. CECANF should recommend increased emphasis on teen pregnancy prevention, especially for young women in high poverty areas and those in foster care.

The Commission should recommend that all teens, especially those at higher risk of pregnancy, have access to contraceptive methods and education. Clinics in low income areas and those serving youth in foster care and juvenile justice should provide the full array of contraceptive options including the long-lasting methods that are most effective, along with education and counseling.

Special attention should be devoted to preventing a second birth to a teenage mother by ensuring that she is provided with a contraceptive method at the time of the first birth. The federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which has been under attack in Congress, should be fully funded or expanded.


Two dozen Oakland non-profits and public organizations will split $6.37 million in funding to reduce violence at the community level, thanks to Oakland’s Measure Z, a parcel tax and parking surcharge meant to boost public safety efforts.

Among the non-profits and organizations the city’s Human Services Department chose to fund were Youth Alive!, which connects with hospitalized kids and teens who have been shot or stabbed, or who have just been released from lock-up, to prevent retaliation and reoffending.

Youth Alive! was awarded $1 million, which was the largest grant, for a collaborative effort with Oakland California Youth Outreach to provide conflict mediation in neighborhoods prone to violence.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Rachel Swan has the story. Here’s a clip:

Staff from the city’s Human Services Department — which has an arm called Oakland Unite that manages public safety funds — recommended awarding 30 grants in all, allocating the money to 24 nonprofit and public agencies, out of 44 that applied. The City Council approved those awards Tuesday.

Clients from several of the organizations that received funding gave emotional speeches at the council meeting, highlighting the urgency of Measure Z.

“I just got out of prison two weeks ago,” said Tommy Robinson, who had come to advocate for Oakland California Youth Outreach.

Robinson said he’d spent more than a decade behind bars, and the last six years in solitary confinement.

“It was tough going from being isolated to being around people again,” Robinson said, adding that the group had helped him put together a resume and readjust to the outside world.

“Welcome home,” said council President Lynette McElhaney, her voice quavering.


According to a survey conducted by the Crime Report, the “Black Lives Matter” movement was the most significant criminal justice-related news story of 2015. Among the other topics and developments that made the top 10 list were viral cell phone and body cam videos of police confrontations, sentencing reform, and a focus on jails.

Here’s how it opens (head over to the Crime Report to read the full list):

Judging by news reports, Americans were experiencing more fear and insecurity in the closing months of 2015 than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. Last week’s massacre in San Bernardino and the earlier shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs reignited long-festering debates on gun control and domestic terrorism.

Nevertheless, in our fifth annual survey of the most significant criminal justice news stories and developments, TCR readers looked beyond those tragedies to focus on the injustices experienced daily by our most marginalized citizens at the hands of the U.S. justice system—and the network of civic activist groups that has emerged in response.

In choosing the growing political profile of Black Lives Matter and related organizations as the major development of 2015, readers also appeared to signal their faith and optimism in the ability of American civil society to drive change.

“(Black Lives Matter) brought national attention to issues of police brutality in the U.S.,” said one TCR reader who requested anonymity. “And they have continued to fight to keep this subject in the spotlight.”

Although the San Bernardino event occurred after we posted our nominations last week, that didn’t mean the incidents of mass killings which have plagued America during a violent year—such as the June 17 massacre of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, SC and the shooting spree in Colorado Springs that left four dead (including the shooter) and nine injured on November 27—were ignored.

The troubling phenomenon of domestic terrorism—targeted attacks that have been tied at least in part to ideological hatreds or racial bias—came in at fifth place on TCR’s “Top Ten” List.

Nevertheless, by an overwhelming consensus, the most important developments were those that represented seedbeds for change.

And we think that’s significant. TCR readers, of course, are among the country’s most informed audience when it comes to criminal justice. Many of you are deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of the system, as academics, practitioners, advocates and journalists (just to name a few categories).


A US District Judge has overturned the death sentence of Rudolph Roybal, finding “egregious misconduct” from the prosecutor, who told the jury during the penalty phase of Roybal’s trial that the Bible calls for murderers to be put to death.

While there is little doubt that Roybal did murder a 65-year-old Oceanside woman after she and her husband fired him for doing yard work too slowly, Judge Jeffrey Miller said the prosecutor’s invalid argument encouraged a conflicted jury to choose a death sentence “because it was God’s will, and not that the imposition of the death penalty complied with California and federal law.”

The San Diego Union Tribune’s Kristina Davis has the story. Here are some clips:

“The prosecutor’s improper argument presented an intolerable danger that the jury minimized its role as fact finder and encouraged jurors to vote for death because it was God’s will, and not that the imposition of the death penalty complied with California and federal law,” Miller wrote in a 226-page opinion granting Roybal’s appeal. The opinion was filed last week.

The judge also chastised Roybal’s defense attorneys, ruling they provided ineffective counsel by not objecting to the prosecutor’s inappropriate closing remarks.

“The failure of defense counsel to object to such egregious misconduct and secure an admonition deprived defendant of the fundamental fairness of a death penalty proceeding free from foul prosecutorial blows,” Miller said.


Alex Simpson, a professor at California Western School of Law, said the issue is less about the Bible than the prosecutor asking the jury to make a decision based on something other than the evidence presented in the case.

“It’s an appeal to an authority or other evidence that shouldn’t be considered by the jury,” Simpson said in an interview. “In reality, the only thing a jury should do is consider what are the facts and how do the facts inform my decision to vote one way or the other.”

Posted in Death Penalty, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Violence Prevention | No Comments »

Head of LA’s New Office of Child Protection Faces Huge Challenges With Little Authority (But He Can’t Wait to Start) – by Gary Cohn

December 7th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


But was he given enough authority to get the job done?

by Gary Cohn

Michael Nash’s 30-year career as a jurist has mostly been focused
on trying to make life better for Los Angeles County’s children. He is widely credited by lawyers, child advocates and other judges as having measurably improved the juvenile courts in Los Angeles, where he spent two decades serving alternately as the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court and supervising judge of the Juvenile Dependency Court.

The latter oversees the fate of Los Angeles foster children.

California’s massive foster care system is the largest in the nation, with 62,097 in foster care as of 2014. (To give you a reference point, New York, which has the next largest system, has 25,397). With 20,651 kids in care, sprawling and complicated Los Angeles County has 30 percent of the state’s foster youth, making it the largest municipal system in the United States, and — after 18 different directors have cycled through LA’s agency in 26 years — it is arguably America’s most chronically troubled.

Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that, during his years on the bench, many of Mike Nash’s efforts and accomplishments have been focused on LA’s foster children:

He promoted major advances in treating crossover youth, kids who have contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. (Los Angeles County is also home to the nation’s largest juvenile justice system.)

To this end, Nash oversaw the creation of Los Angeles’ first juvenile mental health court and first juvenile drug court. In 1998, he helped launch Adoption Saturday in Los Angeles. Since then, about 10,000 foster children have had their adoptions completed in Saturday court hearings. And, in 2014, he managed to open the notoriously secretive Child Dependency Courts to the press.

Now at age 67, the reform-minded Nash is about to embark on a new challenge relating to LA’s foster kids: Early next year, he will become the first director of Los Angeles County’s new Office of Child Protection.

The job was created by the LA County Board of Supervisors at the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission empaneled by the supervisors in the wake of the horrific killing of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. The boy had been seen multiple times by foster care workers and county sheriff’s deputies before he was essentially tortured to death by his mother and her boyfriend.

After its formation, the commission declared the county’s foster care system to be in a state of emergency requiring a fundamental transformation of the current child protection system.

First on its laundry list of changes urgently needed, the commission recommended that a new entity, the Office of Child Protection, be created to ensure an integrated approach to child protection.

“It is critical that one entity be responsible and accountable for the well-being of the child as a whole and that this entity have no other competing responsibilities,” the commission wrote.

As the OCP’s first director, this means that Nash will, in effect, be in charge of finding a way to make sure the county’s neglected and abused children are kept safe.

Gary Cohn talked to Nash about the priorities and challenges of his new job.


Gary Cohn: First of all, just to set the stage, would you describe your new position and why you accepted such a huge, and some say, impossible job? You were, after all, retired for not quite a year.

Michael Nash: This is potentially an opportunity to see if we can improve the way our system here in Los Angeles works with kids and families. It’s a big challenge because it’s a new entity. How it works is not that clearly defined at this point in time.

Cohn: At one point, your new job was known unofficially as “child welfare czar,” with the ability to affect budgets and hire personnel, but the job description changed, and now it doesn’t include anywhere near as much authority. How big an obstacle does that present?

Nash: There’s no authority, OK? The mission is so large that it’s not that clearly defined. So, on the one hand, I expect I will be advising the Board of Supervisors. On the other hand. I expect that I’ll have an opportunity to bring folks together and work on specific issues and see if we can improve how things function. Because there’s no specific authority it’s like walking a tightrope in a way, a real balancing act.

Cohn: Without that specific authority, what you can accomplish is sort of up to your persuasiveness?

Nash: That’s the uniqueness of the challenge and quite frankly I’m crazy enough where that appeals to me.

Cohn: The Board of Supervisors has set certain priorities for your position, putting a big emphasis on prevention, increased transparency in the system and creating a strategic, child-centered plan that is data driven, informed by best practices and that connects all agencies in the county and sets forth measureable goals. But the main emphasis is on keeping children safe. How do you do that?

Nash: We assess the risk that children face in given situations. That’s still an issue and how we coordinate the actions of not only, the Department of Children and Family Services, but other entities — whether it’s law enforcement, the education system, or the health system. We really have to figure out what piece each of those entities own, and how to better coordinate their efforts so that kids don’t fall through the cracks and end up dead.


Cohn: How do you strike the proper balance in deciding whether to keep kids in their homes or pull them out?

Nash: You want to have an assessment tool in place that is properly utilized by the different folks that touch these families. At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee that nobody is going to get hurt, but certainly with a good tool, with proper training, proper oversight, proper evaluation, I think we can do a better job of minimizing the risk.

Nothing in life is absolute, but when we see these situations come up again and again, you go, “Hey, is there a better way to do things?” I think that’s why the blue-ribbon commission was formed in the first place, because you had a child who died, a child that the system had touched, that different entities had touched, and the child ended up dead. So that’s an issue that the Office of Child Protection ought to be addressing.

Cohn: You’ve been pretty outspoken about efforts to try and keep families together?

Nash: The law requires that we make every effort to keep families together if we can do so safely — key word being safely. So, it’s about striking that balance. How do we do that, OK? Some people say, “Well, when we keep families together, we ignore safety.” Other folks say we don’t make the appropriate efforts to keep [families] together, we just remove the kids.

Again, it’s about choosing the appropriate balance. There are kids who need to be removed and there are kids who could stay home if the appropriate services were offered. In court, whenever we remove a kid, the question we should be asking before we do that is: Are there any services that would allow this child to safely remain home?

We have to ask that question in every single case and get a good answer. Now in many of the cases, the answer is easy. What’s going on [in the home] is just so awful that you can’t keep the kid there. But there are lots of cases that fall within a grey area, and we really need to give those cases the appropriate consideration. That’s specifically what the law requires, both federal law and state law.

At the end of the day I don’t know if we’ve ever achieved the appropriate balance. That has been an ongoing issue in child protection everywhere, not just here in Los Angeles.

Cohn: I understand that Los Angeles, as well as other jurisdictions across the country, is increasingly using child protective analytics to help make decisions about the best interests of children — when to leave them in their homes and when to remove them. Can you explain how you plan to use analytics moving forward?

Nash: Analytics is basically the use of data to predict future actions. When we talk about protective analytics in the realm of child welfare, [we are asking if you] can look at the data that exists and predict whether or not the risk to this child is great. You can use it in a lot of different ways. One is to inform the decision of social workers to remove or not to remove. I was just on a call yesterday where Wisconsin is trying to determine when families leave the system, what families are at risk of coming back into the system. They call that re-entry.

Wisconsin has a project where they’re using analytics to determine that. It’s relatively new so they don’t have any data yet to say whether it works. Other jurisdictions around the country are using analytics similar to the way we want to use it here. But, once again, it’s pretty new and so at least from the five or six jurisdictions that I heard from yesterday, they really don’t have any meaningful data yet as to whether or not it works.

Cohn: The idea of using it here would be to help make decisions of what kind of risks the child is facing and whether they are enough to necessitate removing them from the home?

Nash: Yes and DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] is currently is working on a tool using analytics. I expect in the near future I’ll be briefed on that, and then determine to what extent the Office of Child Protection needs to be involved in that process.


Cohn: There’s been a lot of talk about the increasing number of kids going into the foster care system, and the problems with recruiting adequate foster families lately…

Nash: Apparently it’s a problem, yes.

Cohn: Is that something you’ll be working on?

Nash: Well it’s something that was a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report so … once again, I’m in the process of doing my due diligence to find out where actually LA County is in this process, and to what extent can the Office of Child Protection be involved in that particular issue.

I’ll be spending my time this next month, and surely the beginning stages of my term, looking at a lot of different data, a lot of different processes to see where we need to go from here. Of course there’s nothing that will occur without the approval of the board. I’m not an independent entity in this regard. I work with the Board of Supervisors, so any thoughts that I have will be vetted with them and then we’ll move from there.
Cohn: Are there other municipalities that you look to because they’re doing things that you admire?

Nash: Well the good thing is, in my previous job I did a lot of national work, and so I know folks all over the country. One of the things that we’ve always done is steal from each other, when there’s something that somebody else is doing well. For example, here in Los Angeles back in the late ‘90s, we developed an adoption project which led to the Adoption Saturday program, which was very popular. Other jurisdictions around the country saw how popular it was, and they started doing the same thing.

We now have National Adoption Day where, on one day, every state in the union that has jurisdictions that can complete adoptions of kids from foster care, to the tune of thousands of adoptions, and it’s pretty cool. So that’s something we started that others have copied. By the same token, there are things we’ve copied from others. For example, when I was with the court, we had another program where we celebrated reunification. I wish it was my idea, but I stole it from a friend in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cohn: Can you explain how it works?

Nash: We had a date where we celebrated the families that reunified, which is just as important as adoptions, if not more important. What we want to do in the child welfare system is make sure that kids leave the system through families. Our number one preference is they leave the system in their own family. If we can’t do that, then the next priority is adoption.

Cohn: Are there additional programs and protocols that other jurisdictions are using that you admire and are thinking of bringing to Los Angeles?

Nash: I want to know what tools others are using on risk assessment. Is there something out there that we need to look at that perhaps we can adopt for our use here?

Another big issue that everybody is talking about is the trauma-informed system. Every child who comes into our system has suffered trauma. Every one. One hundred percent. They’ve been injured by someone close to them, then simply by coming into the system they’re traumatized.

And we know that trauma affects the bodies, the minds and the spirits of children. It prevents them from developing to their full potential. So everybody recognizes that we need to treat that problem. It certainly is being talked about here in Los Angeles. So the question is how do we assess the trauma when we bring these kids into the system. And how do we treat it? Are there jurisdictions that are doing that successfully, and achieving positive outcomes for kids? That’s something else that we’ll be looking at.

Cohn: You sound excited to jump back into it. Maybe “excited” is the wrong word…

Nash: You know, it’s probably as good a word as any. I’ve always been passionate about this work.


Cohn: What about the particular problems of crossover youth — children who are in both the child protective and juvenile justice systems?

Nash: It’s an important issue because every child who is a victim of abuse and neglect is at high risk of crossing over into the juvenile justice system, and frequently they do. The question is how you create communication and coordination between the two systems so that somehow you can achieve a decent outcome for those kids.

We know that kids who come into the child welfare system are at risk of crossing over. And we also know that the child welfare side has never been operating on full cylinders, right? There are lots of issues with the system that probably contribute to them crossing over. We not only have a legal obligation to give these kids attention, we have a moral obligation to them.

We’ve done a pretty good job of bringing the two systems together in Los Angeles. Our challenge was, and still is, to figure out the best way to serve these kids.

Cohn: There’ve been a number of troubling stories in the media about two DCFS entities called the Youth Welcome Center and the Child Welcome Center. Can you explain to our readers what purpose those centers serve, and what our concerns ought to be?

Nash: We used to have a place called MacLaren Children’s Center, a shelter in El Monte that was designed to be a short-term shelter where we placed kids. Sadly, over the years it developed into a long-term placement for hard-to-place kids without appropriate services attached to it. It became a dumping ground for kids, and a dumping ground for social workers. It closed in 2003. The problem is that the system has not come up with a better alternative. For a while, the numbers of kids in the system were going down, but in the last five years the numbers have gone up significantly.

So where do we put these kids? There aren’t enough short-term foster homes or long-term foster homes, for that matter, and [while waiting for placement] kids were spending nights or days at DCFS offices. As a response, the county developed these “welcome centers,” which are really nothing more than a stopgap measure. There needs to be a better long-term solution — that includes, of course, recruitment of emergency foster homes, but I don’t know if that, in itself, is the answer.

Cohn: California passed legislation this year that is intended to comprehensively reform placement and treatment options for children in foster care. The legislation, AB 403, signed into law in September, is supposed to make sure that youth in foster care have their physical, emotional and mental health needs met and ensure they grow up in permanent and supportive homes. Are you optimistic about this legislation?

Nash: It could completely transform the way the systems work. It’s actually exciting. It’s going to be very difficult for the state and the counties to implement it in the next year, but it’ll bring about significant changes. It requires upfront assessments of kids… It changes the way we recruit and license foster homes, and it changes the way we license group homes.

Cohn: You’re about to embark on an effort to fix a troubled and deeply flawed child protection system in Los Angeles. Now that we’ve talked about some of the things on your to-do list, what do you hope to work on first?

Nash: [The priorities] will be determined by the Board [of Supervisors] based on the discussions that we have with them. That aside, I do think this issue of risk assessment is a big issue — how we assess risk, how we coordinate the efforts of all the different agencies that touch families. It’s one that I will be looking at and potentially advocating that we move forward in that area.

When you think of the different aspects of it, it’s as broad as you want to make it. Obviously with limited staff and time and resources, we really have to figure out what the priorities are going to be. I used to say I wish I could just wave my magic wand and fix everything but somehow my magic wand never worked very well. You can only hope that when you leave, you leave it better than you found it.

Cohn: This hardly sounds like a quick fix or one-year job that you’re taking on. Any thoughts on how long you’d like to stay in this new job?

Nash: Well, number one, as long as I’m healthy. Number two, as long as I’m productive; number three, as long as my bosses, the Board of Supervisors, think I’m productive. I don’t have a set time frame at this point. I’ve already flunked retirement once. It’s a unique opportunity and maybe, despite my better judgment, it was too good to pass up. Too unique to pass up.

Gary Cohn is an award-winning journalist who is adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism.

This interview has been condensed and edited. It is the product of collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

PHOTOS: Photo of Judge Nash in his office by Jessica Dallas. All other photos by Gary Cohn

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Protecting Foster Kids, Gov. Brown’s Veto Message, John Oliver on Mental Illness…and More

October 7th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a new center—a philanthropy liaison—within the still developing Office of Child Protection. The new liaison effort will fill in a problematic gap in the child welfare system: collaboration with philanthropic groups on initiatives to better protect and serve foster kids.

The new Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships will have three staff members who will be tasked with securing funding assistance from philanthropic groups. Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion with Supe Sheila Kuehl said she sees the money going toward keeping kids safe from abuse, addressing trauma in foster children, and other critical safety and wellbeing efforts.

“The power of public-private partnerships has been under-utilized within the County. This motion changes that unfortunate dynamic,” Supervisor Solis said. “With this new Center in place, we will be far better positioned to combine the best thinking and resources of government and philanthropy into programs that work for children. That is why this initiative is a priority for me.”

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Christie Renick has more on the new center. Here’s a clip:

“We believe it will be a game-changer and lead to a more effective and collaborative relationship between government and philanthropy as we work together toward a better future for our children,” said Chris Essel, SCG’s president and CEO, in a press release.

Twelve philanthropic groups have already endorsed the center, according to a press release from Solis’ office: The Ahmanson Foundation; Annenberg Foundation; Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation/Pritzker Foster Care Initiative; Blue Shield of California Foundation; California Community Foundation; The California Endowment; David Bohnett Foundation; Hilton Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation; UniHealth Foundation; and Weingart Foundation.

“Improving our child welfare system requires the kind of innovative solutions that result from cross-sector collaboration. This is a very important example of government and philanthropy working together on behalf of our children and families,” said Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, in a press release.

The board also passed a motion by Supe Kuehl to hire a consultant to focus specifically on the finding areas in which the county departments are failing LGBTQ foster kids, who are over-represented in the child welfare system. The consultant will gather data and present recommendations to the board on how to better care for the vulnerable LGBTQ foster population, including recommendations on training for those in contact with the kids (like social workers, mental health professionals, and foster parents).

“All the young people in our foster care system face incredible challenges, but the nearly 20% who identify as LGBTQ are in great need of targeted support to ensure they’re properly cared for, valued and respected, said Kuehl. “This is an important first step in improving outcomes for these kids and I’m proud to have the opportunity to champion them today.”

Here’s a clip from Kuehl’s website:

These youth face unique challenges and barriers to finding positive outcomes and permanent homes—challenges stemming from discrimination due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.

Not only are LGBTQ youth over-represented in the foster care population, there are also significant disparities in experience between LGBTQ youth and their non-LGBTQ counterparts. These disparities could be mitigated if we develop and utilize accurate data and enhanced training efforts to more fully address their needs, including identifying and re-mediating the effects of bullying and trauma.

As part of a five-year, federal grant awarded to the LGBT Center in Los Angeles, the Williams Institute at UCLA and Holarchy Consulting conducted a landmark study of 786 randomly sampled foster youth ages 12 to 21. The findings show that 19 percent – nearly one in five – foster youth in Los Angeles County identify as LGBTQ. This means that there are almost four times more LGBTQ youth as a percentage of young people in foster care than those identifying as LGBTQ outside foster care.

Given this over-representation of LGBTQ youth among foster children, it is even more problematic that there has been very little focus on this population. According to the Williams-Holarchy study, LGBTQ youth have a higher than average number of foster care placements and a greater likelihood of being in a group home, hospitalized or homeless at some point in their lives. More stable placements and stronger reunification efforts could lead to improved educational and permanency outcomes.

Costly group home and hospital stays could be avoided with a more targeted approach in serving this unique population. While many of our departments have made very good efforts to develop specialized LGBTQ programs, now is the time for the County to systematically address the needs of LGBTQ youth in our child welfare system.

Also on Tuesday, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids. San Jose Mercury News’ Karen De Sá has more on the three bills authored by Senators Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). (If you haven’t, be sure to read De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)


Over the weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a pile of bills that would have created new crimes (and put more people behind bars for longer). In his veto message the governor urged caution, pointing out that the state already has a whopping 5,000 criminal laws. “I think we should pause and reflect how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just, and more cost-effective,” said Brown.

An LA Times editorial lauds the governor’s message, and calls for a sentencing commission to review the criminal statutes and give meaningful reform recommendations to responsive lawmakers. Here’s a clip:

We take that statement not as merely a wise admonition but as a call to action. California needs a comprehensive review of its 5,000 criminal statutes. It needs a sentencing commission to provide a holistic view of crimes and penalties, to recommend needed changes — what to roll back, what to toughen up — and to critique legislative proposals. It needs lawmakers who take such recommendations seriously and are prepared to inject some sense into our criminal justice framework.

The Legislature too often proves itself inadequate to the task. Senators and Assembly members carry bills as one-offs that respond to current tragedies, outrages or headlines, or that cater to the needs of particular advocacy groups, even when there is little or no evidence that greater safety or savings will result. There is an entire crime bill industry that measures effectiveness by the number of infractions turned into misdemeanors and misdemeanors turned into felonies. Results have included, for example, more serious charges and stiffer criminal sanctions for the theft of avocados or crustaceans than other goods of similar value, and long sentences for relatively minor nonviolent crimes such as drug possession.


John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, continues to hammer away at important social and criminal justice issues. This week, Oliver takes on the issue of mental health in the United States, including the inadequate treatment, the never-ending cycle of fatal encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill, and the horrifying fact that there are ten times more people with mental illness behind bars than in psychiatric hospitals. Watch the segment above.


FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik has a very helpful analysis of the major bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill announced last week. (Backstory here.)

Here’s a clip:

The crimes that would have new mandatory minimums produce few convictions. They are interstate domestic violence — involving travel across state lines by an offender or victim — resulting in death or serious injury, or committed with a dangerous weapon; and providing goods or services to terrorists or proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Just 44 people were sentenced for interstate domestic violence last year, according to the Sentencing Commission’s 2014 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. And 162 people were sentenced for the category of crimes that includes arming or aiding terrorists.

The commission’s numbers include some people whose crimes wouldn’t have been covered by the new mandatory minimums proposed in the Senate bill. That’s because the legislation doesn’t cover everyone who has violated the relevant federal statutes; it covers only a subset of the most serious offenders. For instance, not all interstate domestic violence results in death or serious injury or is committed with a dangerous weapon.

For that reason, the number of people who would have been affected by the bill if it were in effect in 2014 is smaller — far smaller, according to Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports the bill but opposes the new mandatory minimums. She estimates that if the mandatory minimums were in place last year, they would have affected just 22 people for interstate domestic violence and just eight people for aiding or arming terrorists.

By contrast, thousands more people could benefit from a different provision of the bill. It retroactively applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the gap in sentencing guidelines between offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine. (Crack sentences, which disproportionately affect black prisoners, were significantly higher than those for powder.) Making the 2010 law retroactive would give approximately 6,500 people convicted of crack offenses who remain in prison the right to file a motion for a reduced sentence — although the bill doesn’t mandate that courts grant the motion and some of the prisoners already are near the end of their sentences.


And in the coming weeks, the US Department of Justice is scheduled to release around 6,000 drug offenders from federal prison, reducing prison overcrowding and shortening old, harsh drug-related sentences.

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz has the story. Here’s a clip:

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. About two-thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release. About one-third are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported, officials said.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — that reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

The commission’s action is separate from an effort by President Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative that has resulted in the early release of 89 inmates.

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform.

The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

The releases are part of a shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing that has been driven by a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration has failed and should be reversed.

Along with the commission’s action, the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.

Posted in Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, mental health, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Report Describes Alarming Rise in LA Kids and Infants at Troubled Foster Care “Welcome Centers”

September 25th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

A new report released Monday by LA County’s Commission for Children and Families
shows that the number of children showing up at the county’s two foster care intake centers—called Welcome Centers—has jumped “alarmingly,”

The report’s authors described a “need for action,” as they told of a 40% increase in population in the combined two centers, from January to June, with a 26% increase in the second quarter over the first quarter.

The authors were most concerned about the jump in number of infants and children 0-2, which rose by a startling 71% in the second quarter, and also about the “repeat entries of adolescents,” which increased 41% during that same period.

So why the worrisome rise in kids and infants entering the Welcome Centers (which are supposed to limit kids of any age to a 23-hour stay)?

The primary reason, according to the report, was “an insufficient number of suitable foster care placements for these children, leading to stays longer than 24 hours [at the welcome centers], or multiple returns.”

So what ought to be done?

The commission’s Ad Hoc committee members, which spent five months writing the report, have a list of urgent recommendations they hope the county will adopt. But to understand the problems—and possible solutions—that this report describes, it helps to know a little about how the Welcome Centers came into being.


When children are removed from their families because of concerns of abuse and/or neglect, and transferred into LA County’s care, there is often a brief lag time before the kids—be they infants, toddlers, grade schoolers, or teenagers—are placed with either a foster family or, in the case of some children with more complicated needs, into a specialized group home. During that lag time, these children who are entering the system (or in some instances being moved within the system, awaiting transfer from one placement to another) need to be somewhere that is safe and that, ideally, can also ease the traumatizing and often frightening transition they are making.

For more than a decade the county’s Department of Children and Family Services has been struggling to find the right short term environment where children and teenagers could stay during this lag-time. At the same time, DCFS was theoretically working to create a system that made sure that the gap period—between the moment of entering the system, and matching children with foster care placement—was as short as possible, hopefully no more than 24 hours.

In the years after the closing in 2003 of MacLaren Hall, the county’s scandal and abuse-plagued facility that was previously used to fill the gap, social workers were reduced to stashing kids wherever they could, in their offices, sometimes even in their cars.

Then in 2012, the county opened what they optimistically named The Children’s Welcome Center, as a 23-hour short term shelter for children from 0-11 years old. In 2014, the county opened the companion Youth Welcome Center to similarly serve the 12 to 21-year-old foster population.

Neither facility is licensed by the state, hence the 23 hour cutoff—which is now routinely exceeded, according to the report, especially in the case of the Youth Welcome Center, where kids exit the facility during the day then come back at night to start the 23-hour clocking ticking again.

The Youth Welcome Center, in particular, has become mired in controversy, with kids getting into brawls, staff complaining about not enough bathrooms for children’s needs and privacy, and about staffers’ concern that allowing emotionally vulnerable 12-year-olds to sleep in the same physical environment as traumatized and disaffected 17-to-21-year-olds is a recipe for disaster. (And then there is the matter of the persistent rumors about younger residents being recruited for sex trafficking by older residents at the center.)


The first line of defense, according to the report, is the most obvious: the county must “develop a plan for aggressive recruitment for foster families” for each of these groups of children.

In recruiting potential foster parents for infants and very young children, there are several things that stand in the way, including the fact that foster parents aren’t adequately reimbursed for costs like diapers, and that it’s difficult for working foster parents to get child care for their charges, and more. These and other barriers must be addressed, says the report.

(To be honest, it’s perplexing that such simple and obvious issues have not been addressed thus far, as DCFS continues to bemoan the lack of good foster parents.)

For the older children, the report recommends the creation of a pilot program that includes the formation of a small “multi-disciplinary/departmental entry-response team” that would include someone from each one of the relevant agencies, namely DCFS, the Department of Mental Health, the LA County office of Education (LACOE), the Department of Health services, and so on. This emergency team would meet with the foster child and his or her social worker, and also the kid’s family, within 24-48 hours, and form a plan for placement that includes staying on the case with the child until he or she is placed.

Wendy Smith—who is an Associate Dean at USC’s School of Social work, and one of the three commission members who authored Monday’s report—told us that, in addition to the emergency response team, there should be “a point person” who was in daily touch with foster care providers like emergency shelters and group homes, and thus would know what beds were available at the various facilities. “If you had someone who was in daily touch, that would make a big difference,” Smith said.

Indeed. So it would seem.

[Note: on the subject of group homes, please read about the closure of the extravagantly complaint-plagued Bayfront Youth and Family Services.

As for the Welcome Centers, the commission recommends phasing them out as soon as possible in favor of a decentralized system of emergency shelters that already exist throughout the county. The authors point out that a new state law will require a decentralized approach within three years anyway. The state also requires the Welcome Centers to make the changes necessary to get themselves licensed by the state, which will likely mean costly improvements—yet another reason, according to the commission, to go with regional emergency centers now.

Over the next three years, the report hopes for “the development of a best practice model for L.A. County, building on the existing network of 72-hour shelters.”

During that same time, the report proposes the launch of a new task force that could look at who was doing what elsewhere in the nation, in order to help design a “trauma-informed” system for LA that provides more than an emergency stop gap, but also helps “…children and youth who have experienced so much change and uncertainty, in addition to the maltreatment and violence that led to system involvement in the first place,” thereby “decreasing the negative effects of entry or re-entry into placement and increasing the likelihood of successful planning and placement.”

Sounds like the least we can do for the kids that we have taken into our care.

So who has to say yes for some of the commission’s suggested solutions to be instituted?

“I’m encouraged by the county’s response to some of these issues,” said Smith. But as to who actually has the power to trigger the change, the sources we talked to agreed that action by the Board of Supervisors could put everything in motion.

So, over to you, LA County Board of Supes. Thoughts?


So take a look at what she has to say here.

Posted in Foster Care | 1 Comment »

YouthBuild, the “Holloway Doctrine,” and ICE Modifies How It Issues Detainer Requests in CA

September 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


In California’s San Joaquin County and across the nation, the YouthBuild program teaches construction skills to struggling teens while helping them obtain their high school diplomas or GEDs.

The alternative education program lasts for six months to two years and serves 16 to 24-year-olds who are aging out of foster care, have had contact with the juvenile justice system, or are otherwise at risk of dropping out. YouthBuild also connects teens and young adults with contractors and apprentice programs upon their graduation from the program.

Last month, six YouthBuilds in California received a portion of $76 million in funding from the US Labor Department. The $1.1 million allocated to San Joaquin’s YouthBuild will cover the cost of 80 students for two years, plus a year of assistance after graduation.

The Stockton Record’s Reed Fujii has more on YouthBuild and how it shifts struggling kids’ trajectories. Here’s a clip:

Roosevelt Webb lost his way after his father died.

He had dropped out of school as a senior at Edison High in Stockton to help take care of his dad and, at age 21 and with no diploma, he said, “I didn’t know what to do.”

Another Stocktonian, James Vong, said as a teenager he had no guidance, no father figure, and growing up on the city’s gritty streets, found himself falling into drugs and the gang life.

But both have found a new direction through San Joaquin County’s YouthBuild program, an alternative educational program that emphasizes building-trades skills as well as academic school standards.

Webb, now 24, works for the San Joaquin County Office of Education, helping supervise YouthBuild teams on construction sites.

And Vong, 20, is enrolled in the program and was working on an affordable housing project in south Stockton as part of Webb’s team.

“Ever since attending YouthBuild, I made a 360 degree flip,” he said of his life. “Now I’m working at Habitat (for Humanity’s Dream Creek project), doing what I love.”


Despite increased federal efforts to lower prison populations by releasing non-violent drug offenders, President Barack Obama ranks among the ten least merciful presidents of the United States, having granted only 153 pardons, commutations, remissions, and respites, thus far.

Recent releases of two men serving excessively high and outdated sentences (often for drugs) have brought attention to another less-used method of leniency. The two men, Francois Holloway and Luis Anthony Rivera have successfully petitioned judges to reduce their old, disproportionately harsh sentences. The original prosecutors had to consent to the judges’ decisions.

Advocates and legal experts believe that if federal prosecutors will agree not to oppose judges’ leniency, the appropriately named “Holloway Doctrine” has the potential to lead to the release of many more inmates serving sentences that would not be handed down today.

The LA Times’ Richard Serrano has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Rivera and Holloway asked federal judges for leniency, something that happens frequently, and federal prosecutors agreed not to fight, which is rare.

The original sentencing judges agreed to take a fresh look at the punishments of the two men. Assured that both had turned their lives around, the judges and prosecutors agreed to vacate parts of their original convictions and reduce their sentences to “time already served.”

Legal experts predict the cases could open the door to similar requests by many more prisoners if federal prosecutors are willing to take the same approach elsewhere.

“That’s a pretty novel way to do things,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. “I’ve not run across a lot of people who ever get out that way, and we get letters every day from people wanting help.”

Mauer predicted that the Rivera and Holloway examples will prompt defense lawyers around the country to seek similar relief for clients and will give judges “a level of comfort” in agreeing.

“It’s always the courageous ones that go first,” he said.

Holloway’s case went to court last year in Brooklyn, where the top federal prosecutor at the time was U.S. Atty. Loretta Lynch, who is now attorney general. Lynch at first resisted his release, suggesting he seek a presidential commutation. But she ultimately agreed not to oppose his appeal.

The original sentencing judge, John Gleeson, a former prosecutor who had put Mafia boss John Gotti in prison, noted that Holloway had served more time for robbing three cars than “if he had committed first-degree murder.”

“Black men like Holloway have long been disproportionally subjected to the stacking of counts,” Gleeson said, referring to sentencing rules that he said forced him to sentence Holloway to 57 years in prison in 1996.

The judge applauded Lynch for consenting to the release.

“This is a significant case, and not just for Francois Holloway,” he said. “It demonstrates the difference between a Department of Prosecutions and a Department of Justice.”


In the face of law enforcement agencies’ widespread refusal to comply with federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants in jails for up to 48 hours, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representatives say the department is trying to be more flexible and meet law enforcement groups in the middle.

Under the new system, ICE analysts in a SoCal office run data on arrests to determine who is high priority for deportation before issuing detainer requests. ICE still asks law enforcement to let them know when they are releasing someone facing deportation, but issues fewer detainer requests for low-level offenders.

The LA County Sheriff’s Department changed its stance from no compliance with ICE detainer requests to allowing ICE to interview incarcerated immigrants, but still refuses to keep immigrants locked up past their release dates.

The Associated Press has more ICE’s new methods and how law enforcement agencies are responding. Here’s a clip:

…immigration authorities have also narrowed their focus to people convicted of more serious crimes, and the number of so-called detainer requests — which aim to have jails hold inmates up to 48 hours for deportation officers to pick them up — dropped by 24 percent in the 2014 fiscal year from a year earlier.

At the same time, the number of people deported from the United States, not counting those apprehended on the border, fell 24 percent, federal statistics show.

Immigration authorities had begun issuing detainers based on electronic data after getting access to fingerprints from jail bookings under enhanced law enforcement information-sharing after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

ICE initially started the hub in suburban Southern California to streamline the process for the region, one of the key spots where detainers were used. Now, the Pacific Enforcement Response Center issues about 40 percent of all immigration detainers and requests for notification when inmates are being released, handling the task for much of the country on nights and weekends.

The office, which issued 6,800 detainers and notification requests between June and August, contains half a dozen computers that collect leads for potential deportees and spit out the results on a large printer. Analysts and agents then search for matches in databases for visa holders, naturalized citizens and border arrests to determine the immigration status of those booked into local jails.

In the last three months, detainers or notification requests were sent in 11 percent of the center’s cases. Others are typically sent to field agents for investigation and about half are set aside because the person is here legally or doesn’t have a serious criminal conviction to make them a priority for deportation under the program, which was revamped last year, ICE officials said.

Under the new approach, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department lets immigration agents interview inmates who have detainers but won’t hold them beyond their release date. In Santa Clara County, officials still won’t honor detainers but are weighing whether to notify ICE about serious offenders, while authorities in San Francisco won’t do either despite public outcry after the shooting.

Posted in Education, Foster Care, immigration, juvenile justice | No Comments »

Bills to Pay Attention to as CA Closes in on the End of the Legislative Session

September 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


A bill to block police agencies from abusing civil asset forfeiture has come up against major opposition from law enforcement. Asset forfeiture laws allow government entities to keep money, cars, real estate, and other property that may be associated with a crime (usually a drug crime). Across the nation, local agencies are abusing the tool, using it as a cash cow, by taking money and property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. SB 443, introduced by and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would have only allowed law enforcement agencies to seize assets post-conviction, even after legislators weakened the bill to give it a better chance of passing.

But law enforcement groups went to battle against the bill this week, storming the capitol and urging legislators to pull their support or further amend the legislation, which they say will result in an annual budgetary loss in upwards of $80 million for CA law enforcement. And the US Department of Justice has stepped in to say that if the bill passes into law, CA may lose out on federal funding from an asset forfeiture program.

Today, legislators will take a final vote on SB 443 before it either heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, or more likely, the garbage bin.

In his column, San Diego Union Tribune’s Steven Greenhut preemptively laments the bill’s demise. Greenhut says that if the bill dies, “California police agencies and district attorneys don’t care about justice. They’re just about the money.” Here’s how it opens:

…When police agencies use “civil asset forfeiture” to take private property, they are not allowed to build their budgets around such takings. The funds are supposed to support extra programs – not supplant current dollars. That’s so agencies don’t replace the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of cash.

Unfortunately, forfeiture has become a widely abused practice. Instead of targeting drug kingpins as intended, police sometimes target average citizens who haven’t been convicted or even accused of a crime. For instance, officials tried to take a $1.5 million Anaheim office building because one of the owners’ tenants was accused of illegally selling a $37 in marijuana.

There are many cases of police pulling over a driver and finding a large sum of cash – and they often keep the cash even if there’s no evidence it was tied to a crime. It’s clear why this happens. A recent report shows a number of Southern California cities rely on forfeiture cases to fund their budgets. If they can take it, they will. And to avoid California’s tougher restrictions on these takings, police partner with the feds and split the loot.

SB 443 is a bipartisan effort to rein in the abuses. Mainly, it required a conviction before police can take property. It also was designed to stop police from bringing in the feds to circumvent state law and make it easier for people to contest a taking. It forces police to use this fearsome tool as intended – to target criminal enterprises – rather than to grab the cars of people caught in a minor offense.

The bill is scheduled for a final vote on Thursday, but law-enforcement lobbies are swarming the Capitol. Police chiefs are calling legislators. Some legislators from both parties are reportedly getting wobbly.


Gov. Jerry Brown signed an important bill to protect juvenile justice system-involved immigrant children from being deported by banning the unauthorized disclosure of kids’ records to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a court order.

The Voice of OC’s YVette Cabrera (whose recent series explored the hardships of undocumented boys navigating the juvenile justice system) has more on the bill and its implications. Here’s a clip:

In short, the new law makes it clear that the long-standing practice by some probation agencies in California of referring juveniles suspected of being undocumented to immigration authorities is illegal.

The controversial practice was contested for years by legal scholars, attorneys and immigrant youth advocates who said the referrals violated the state’s existing law protecting juvenile confidentiality as well as the constitutional rights of vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system, including those with mental health and developmental issues.

Probation officials across the state — from Orange County to Santa Barbara to San Mateo — have disputed these assertions. They’ve claimed the referrals are legally sound, citing a federal law that not only protects their right to communicate and cooperate with immigration authorities, but which they said also supersedes state law.

San Francisco attorney Angie Junck with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which helped draft AB 899, said she was relieved with the outcome.

“We are extremely happy and grateful for the leadership in Sacramento that understood that we need to uphold the law for everybody in the state regardless of immigration status,” Junck said. “We understand that there’s a lot of work ahead, but this is an important milestone in upholding due process and equal protection for all minors in our state.”

Junck said she plans to share the legislation with national legal and immigration networks and hopes that California’s efforts will be replicated in other states.


When foster kids are transferred out of their home counties, they face months-long interruptions in much-needed mental health services. The problem is that, under current law, instead of following the kids, the responsibility (and funding) to provide mental health treatment remains with their home county.

AB 1299, introduced by Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), which would have ensured foster kids transferred outside of their home counties received continued mental health services in their new counties, was tabled until next year.

Writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, Patrick Gardner, director of the Young Minds Advocacy Project, has more on why AB 1299 failed to make it into the governor’s hands. Here’s a clip:

What is clear is that lobbyists for three county-centered entities — the California State Association of Counties, the California Behavioral Health Directors Association and the California Welfare Directors Association — opposed two critical parts of the solution. They opposed having funding follow the child to the child’s county of residence. Instead, the counties proposed giving half of the cost of services (the federal reimbursement half) to the county that provides treatment.

They also opposed having the foster parent, or the person who is responsible for making mental health decisions for the child, decide whether to transfer mental health care responsibility. Instead, the counties wanted social workers and probation officers to be gatekeepers.

It’s absurd to think that a system fix that covers only half the cost of care would work. It is also unreasonable to put responsibility for making system-wide mental health policy on individual social workers or probation officers, something that is clearly outside of their wheelhouse.

In short, it appears that the county lobbyists opposed the bill because it would have changed business as usual to ensure that foster youth who are sent to live in another county are no longer discriminated against when seeking mental health care. It’s a classic case of taking care of the system instead of taking care of the kids.

When one talks to individual social workers and probation officers, or even directors of children’s services or mental health care programs, they universally favor shifting responsibility for care to the county that can best deliver treatment and making sure full funding is there to pay for the services provided.

A package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids, has passed through the Assembly and is headed to the Senate for a final vote. (If you haven’t, read Karen De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)

California Healthline has more on the individual bills.

Another noteworthy foster care bill, SB 731, would give guidance to social workers placing transgender foster kids to ensure they are placed in safe, welcoming homes. The bill, by Sens. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jim Beall (D-San Jose), has been passed by both houses and awaits the governor’s signature.

The bill “provides critical guidance to child welfare professionals by making clear that all children in foster care have the right to placements that are consistent with their gender identity,” said Shannan Wilber, the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Youth Policy Director.

A bill by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), SB 445, which is also on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would ensure children who become homeless can continue to attend their schools of origin.

Posted in Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, juvenile justice, LGBT | No Comments »

When Relatives Take in Out-of County Foster Kids, the Bureaucratic Snafus Double – by Melinda Clemmons

August 28th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Earlier this month, we co-produced a story with The Chronicle of Social Change about the difficulties that arise when California foster children wind up in what is known as: out-of-county placement.

The story, by Daniel Heimpel, looked at the problems faced by one bright and active teenager who was taken into foster care and subsequently placed with a family that lived a county or two away.

The story below, by Melinda Clemmons (also co-produced with CRC) looks at the problems faced by a husband and wife who took in another family member’s the out-of-county child (or, in this case, children), and thus found themselves dealing with the bureaucratic systems of not one, but two different counties.

The Two-County Headache of Becoming Out-of County Foster Kin

by Melinda Clemmons

Mariana Rivera* had her hands full.

Holding her newborn niece, she filled out the paperwork for the infant’s first medical appointment while her four other nieces and nephews, all under the age of 10, ran around the clinic’s waiting room.

“We had just gotten two of the kids earlier that day, and the other two a couple days before that,” Rivera said. “They weren’t used to us yet, and they were confused about why they were with us, so they couldn’t sit still.”

It was the spring of 2014 and, after nine months waiting for their home to be approved, Rivera and her husband had just become relative caregivers to her brother’s five children. The children, and now the baby, had been removed from her brother and his girlfriend, their mother, and placed in foster care by child protective services in Solano County, the eastern-most county in the North Bay area of California.

Knowing that the siblings would likely be separated if they went into non-relative foster care, the Riveras agreed to take them all into their home in neighboring Yolo County when asked by her brother, even though that meant their own 18-year-old son had to move out to make room in their small house.

“We wanted the kids to stay together,” Rivera said. “So we started the process of getting approved right away.”

Over one-third of the children in California who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect are placed with relatives. The Riveras’ nieces and nephews are among the 20 percent of foster children in the state who are placed in a different county from the one in which they were removed, a circumstance that, as the Riveras would find out, brings complications in terms of support services, funding streams and the sheer logistics involved in taking care of children in foster care.

According to Aaron Crutison, deputy director of Solano County Child Welfare Services, relative caregivers are crucial to the department’s focus on permanency for children and strengthening families.

“When we remove a child,” said Crutison, “we’re placing that child in the least restrictive environment while we work with the family and their issues. A relative placement is someone they’re familiar with…so we minimize the trauma to the child when a relative steps in while we work with the family.”

Juggling paperwork, a newborn and four restless children at the clinic, Rivera was quickly finding out that all it takes is a little bureaucratic foul-up to make the already challenging job of caring for traumatized children even harder.

She had driven from her own home in Yolo County to the clinic in Solano County for the baby’s appointment, which had been scheduled by the Solano County hospital where she was born just three days earlier. But after she completed the registration forms at the Solano clinic, she was told that the baby could not be seen in that clinic since she and her siblings now resided in Yolo County with the Riveras.

A frustrated Rivera was advised to go to a clinic in her county of residence, which she did the next day. There she was told that the Yolo clinic could not see the baby either, since as a newborn, she was still on her mother’s MediCal health insurance in Solano County. According to the intake staff at the clinic, Rivera would need to visit a clinic back in Solano County.

When handing over the baby two days after her birth at the hospital in Solano County, the infant’s social worker gave the Riveras her essential paperwork, including the relative foster care placement papers, which they signed. The mother’s MediCal information was absent from the file, a fact the Riveras didn’t learn until they needed it for the Yolo clinic visit.

“The worker should have known that since we lived in a different county, there might be trouble with [the MediCal card] but I don’t know if she knew,” Rivera said.

When she called the worker to untangle the mess, the worker said she did not know how to resolve the problem, and would have to check with her supervisor and get back to her.

“We kept going back and forth to the clinics,” Rivera said. “I called and called the worker until she fixed it.”

The baby was finally seen by a doctor at the clinic in Yolo County, a week after her original appointment.


As the Riveras discovered when they were ping-ponged between clinics, living in a different county than the one in which your foster children originally resided means an array of complications that go well beyond the expected difficulties of dealing with the state’s overwhelmed foster care system.

While Aaron Crutison of Solano County Child Welfare could not speak about a particular case, when told of the Riveras’ frustration in trying to navigate the two county health care systems, he acknowledged the system has challenges.

“We do all we can to make sure that does not happen,” Crutison said.

Waiting nine months for their home to be approved to receive the children was difficult for the Riveras, as they felt the children needed to be with family after what they had been through. While they did not know the details, they understood that the cause of removal was neglect.

“My brother had told me some things, but I didn’t know the whole story,” Rivera said. “But I knew it wasn’t a good environment.”

In addition to the bureaucratic mix-up at the clinics, the Riveras have faced multiple challenges imposed by the distance between their home in Yolo County and the children’s home county of Solano, both during the nine-month-long relative caregiver approval process, and now while they have the children in their care.

For instance, while the Riveras waited for the wheels to turn so the children could be placed with them, the siblings were split up into two different foster homes in Solano County. Anxious to provide their nieces and nephews with some sort of emotional continuity, they traveled over an hour each way to visit the children as often as they were allowed to visit and could manage with their own schedules.

Now that the four children, and the baby, are finally living with them, Rivera drives the same distance once a week to deliver her nieces and nephews for visits with their parents.

In addition, after the children were placed in their home, the kids’ social worker told the Riveras about something called the Foster and Kinship Care Education program in Solano County. Sensing she needed some kind of support, Rivera went to one of the meetings. “It took me an hour to get there, and the meeting was a couple hours, then I had to drive home. It took up the whole day.”

When the children were assigned to a new social worker this past May, she told the Riveras about the Foster and Kinship Care Education program at Woodland Community College near their home in Yolo County. Rivera attends as often as she can, and says that she wishes she had known about it earlier as she gets a lot of support from the staff and fellow relative caregivers who attend the program.


In the spring of 2014, when the children and the baby were placed with the Riveras, relative caregivers did not receive the same level of funding that non-relative foster parents received. The state provided no foster care support to relatives of children who were not eligible for federal foster care support, which accounts for one-third of California’s foster children.

Relatives caring for children who were not eligible for federal foster care support were told to apply on their own for CalWorks and food stamps.

The Riveras did so, and found the process “very frustrating and confusing.” Moreover, as they live “more or less paycheck to paycheck,” the couple hundred dollars per month they received for each child left them struggling to pay for the children’s needs.

Things improved in June 2014 when, thanks in large part to a statewide advocacy effort led by the Step Up for Kin coalition, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Approved Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program. Also known as ARC, the program provides relative caregivers financial support equal to the basic foster care benefits. (It does not pay for specialized care, something that the coalition is working to change.)

“I am very happy that Solano County opted in to this program,” Rivera said. The Riveras finally began receiving the basic foster care rate for each child earlier this summer after the children had been in their home for more than a year.

Inequities still exist, however, as not all counties have opted into the program. Relative caregivers whose foster children originate from one of the 15 counties that have not opted in do not get the ARC dollars even if they themselves live in a county that has accepted the ARC option.


Rivera’s brother and his girlfriend are attending counseling, working to reunify with their children, and have recently asked Rivera to be their “support person” if the children are returned to them.

She was very glad to agree to do that since she wants to remain involved in the children’s lives. As a relative who stepped in during a time of crisis, she does not feel prepared for the children to leave her home.

“When you’re a foster parent, you’re more mentally prepared for it when the children come to you and when they go back home,” Rivera said. “But when you’re family, you can’t believe it when it happens. It’s a shock. It’s like they’re your own children.”

“I love them” she said, “and I’m going to miss them.”

For now, Rivera enjoys watching the younger children run to the older ones when they come home from preschool.

“They need each other,” she said. “We wanted to keep them together, in spite of the struggles, and we have.”

Melinda Clemmons is a reporter and the Marketing Manager for The Chronicle of Social Change.

* The names of the relative caregivers and a few details in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the children in their care.

Meiling Bedard and Maria Akhter contributed to the data visualization for this story.

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

Trauma Lawsuit Against Compton School District, Drugging Foster Kids, the Brown Act-violating Jail Vote, and California’s New Resident Wolves

August 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald heard arguments in a potentially precedent-setting suit against Compton Unified School District for failing to help severely traumatized kids struggling with learning.

The lawsuit filed by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP in May, alleges that Compton schools, instead of treating trauma as a disability, respond to traumatized kids by suspending, expelling, and sending them to different schools. The lawsuit on behalf of eight Compton students alleges these practices are in violation of federal law.

If Judge Fitzgerald grants the injunction, the school district would have to provide training for teachers, mental health services for students, and employ conflict-resolution as a first line of action before considering suspension.

A decision in favor of the young plaintiffs could also have a ripple effect on schools across the country.

Compton Unified’s attorney, David Huff, argues that the suit could have the effect giving all of Compton’s students a disability designation just because of where they live.

(Go here for WLA’s previous reporting on this lawsuit.)

NPR’s Cory Turner has the story. Here’s a clip:

Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress says exposure to violence can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Not only that, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help.

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.”

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them.

The LA Times’ Stephen Caesar also reported on this issue.


A California bill would have mandated oversight of the prescribing of psychotropic medications to foster kids, giving current public health nurses power to monitor the kids, and paying for 38 new public health nurses across CA’s 58 counties.

The bill likely would have been a meaningful step forward in addressing a serious breakdown in foster kids’ mental health care, (uncovered in Karen de Sá’s invaluable investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids“) that is, until its author Senator Jim Beall had to strip it of nearly all of its power in the hopes of getting it past budget hawks.

Implementation would have cost $5 million in the first year, and up to $10 million per year, thereafter.

Because Sen. Beall cut the funding out of the bill to give it a chance in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, nurse oversight is no longer be mandatory: counties can choose to opt in (or not) and will have to cough up the money if they want to participate.

Unfortunately, according to National Center for Youth Law’s Anna Johnson, “If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it.”

Contra Costa Times’ Josh Richman has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Appropriations committees are usually the highest hurdle you have to jump over … second perhaps only to the governor’s signature,” Beall, D-San Jose, said later Wednesday. “We’re going to get the bill on the governor’s desk.”

Beall’s SB 319 is one of four pending bills inspired by the Bay Area News Group’s investigative series “Drugging Our Kids,” which revealed that nearly 1 in 4 foster care teens takes psychiatric drugs.

The drugs are often used to control behavior, not to treat mental illnesses. Most of those on the drugs are prescribed antipsychotics, a powerful class of medication that have the most harmful side effects.

The bill still would give public health nurses the authority to get foster youth’s medical records from social workers and prescribing doctors, Beall said, even though it won’t be required. Almost all of the state’s largest counties will do so, he predicted, and he can use his seats on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees to revisit funding for more nurses and perhaps a statewide mandate in next year’s budget talks.

Still, foster-youth advocates were disappointed.

The Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law sponsored SB 319, and center policy analyst Anna Johnson testified on its behalf Wednesday. Afterward, she said the state’s refusal to spend any money on this is especially disappointing because the federal government would pay 75 percent of the bill.

“If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it” as many other states have, she said. Refusing to do so means “we’re happy with passing that cost on to foster children’s bodies” by “taking a big risk that children will continue to not be monitored on these medications, whether they’re medically necessary or not.”


Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey sent a letter confronting the Board of Supervisors about violating the Ralph M. Brown Act when they voted on a proposed amendment to a large-scale plan to divert mentally ill from county jails last Tuesday.

Because the board agenda did not mention there would be a discussion or vote on the jail construction, the vote did not honor the public’s guaranteed right to attend and participate in meetings of local government bodies.

The LA Times’ editorial board says that even though the Supes remedied the improper vote by recalendaring it, the move doesn’t do anything to solve the public trust issue the first vote created. Here’s a clip:

Then, without prior notice, they proceeded to discuss and adopt a separate plan to downsize a facility to replace the dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and to move ahead with construction of a women’s jail in the Antelope Valley. They offered this ludicrous explanation: The proper jail size depended on the number of people they could divert, so the agenda item on diversion programs and funding necessarily provided the public adequate notice that they would also take up and vote on the controversial multibillion-dollar public works projects.

The true reason for trying to shoehorn in the jails vote? It might be that they had just discovered that state officials were serious about a looming deadline to apply for construction funding, and that they were going to miss it because of their inattentiveness; or that properly calendaring the item for a later meeting would interfere with their vacation plans; or that providing legally adequate notice would raise too much of a public ruckus; or all of the above.

Some county officials also reasoned, after the fact, that anyone who cared about jails also cared about diversion, and therefore was already in the room and received their (very short) notice in real time.

But the purpose of public notice requirements isn’t solely to allow people to show up at board meetings to offer comments, especially in a county of 10 million residents. Only a small slice of the public weighs in that way. Others voice their opinions by calling, emailing, organizing, lobbying or arguing in advance of a major decision affecting them — if they know, as the law entitles them to know, when that decision is to be made. And when push comes to shove, taxpayers and other members of the public have every right to know what their elected representatives are doing, whether they plan to weigh in or not.


A new pack of gray wolves, called the Shasta Pack by wildlife officials, has appeared in California. The two adult wolves and five pups, captured on a trail camera, are the first resident pack in CA in decades.

In 2011, a lone gray wolf, OR-7, made news as the first wolf in California since 1924 when he crossed the border from Oregon. OR-7 now lives with his pack just over the Oregon border.

Here’s what the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has to say about the new pack:

Wild wolves historically inhabited California, but were extirpated. Aside from these wolves and the famous wolf OR7 who entered California in December 2011, the last confirmed wolf in the state was here in 1924. OR7 has not been in California for more than a year and is currently the breeding male of the Rogue Pack in southern Oregon.

In June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list gray wolves as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf is also listed as endangered in California, under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Gray wolves that enter California are therefore protected by the ESA making it illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect wolves, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct in California.

CDFW is completing a Draft Wolf Management Plan and will release it soon.

LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick who has been following the California wolf saga for years has the story.

Posted in District Attorney, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, mental health, Trauma, wolves | 7 Comments »

Does CA Have to Send So Many Foster Kids “Out-of-County?” by Daniel Heimpel

August 18th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

This story by Daniel Heimpel about a former foster child named Heather Matheson, is the first of a series of stories exploring the good and the harm done by a strategy called out-of-county placement that is used by the various county agencies in California’s foster care system. The story was co-produced by WitnessLA & the Chronicle of Social Change, of which Heimpel is the founder and executive director.


What is the cost/benefit ratio of putting foster children—who have already lost so much—into “out-of-county” placement?

by Daniel Heimpel

Heather, slight and precocious, made her Los Angeles County high school’s track team as a freshman.

It was a major feat, something to be proud of in the maelstrom of the 14 year-old’s life. Only months before, the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had removed Heather from her home after a harrowing week of physical abuse and domestic violence.

After 15 months in what had been a promising foster-care placement near Taft High School, set in a pleasant part of the San Fernando Valley, things had started to fall apart. The department decided to move her in with relatives in neighboring Ventura County.

The only problem, one that seemed deceptively small in the context of her painful family history, was that she now had to take three buses to get to school, the only real support system she had left.

“Looking back on it,” Heather says, “it was this short period of time, but it was really stressful. It was a stressful year of life. I could have been going to school dances and football games, but I didn’t because the buses don’t run that late.”

In 2009, when Heather was put into what is called an out-of-county placement, California’s feudal foster care system was larger than it is today, with roughly 70,000 kids in the state’s care who had been removed from their parent’s custody and then placed with foster parents, in group homes or with extended family.

Yet, what hasn’t changed in the eight years since Heather began her foster care odyssey is the fact that 1 in 5 California foster youth will find themselves taken away from the county where they lived and placed in another county. At present, a total of 12,626—or 20 percent of all California children and youth in a foster care placement—live in a different county than the one that they previously called home.

The reasons why foster children and youth are forced to cross county lines so often boils down to conflicting goals within the system, simple geography, and the push and pull of housing costs.

One way to understand the out-of-county issue is to look at the different types of placements to which children are sent. In April, the Center for Social Services Research (CSSR) at the University of California, Berkeley, drawing data from California’s 58 counties, reported that there were 62,915 children in foster care, a number that has been steadily rising since a low point of around 55,000 in 2011. The main placement types for children are with kin, in privately run foster family agencies (FFA), in county-run foster homes and, finally, in group homes, which generally get the older and harder-to-place youth.

Data pulled from CSSR’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project shows that in 2015, 21 percent of kin (such as extended family members), 24 percent of FFA, 5 percent of county foster care and a whopping 36 percent of group home placements were out-of-county.

When it comes to kin—-the preferable foster care placement according to many child welfare leaders-—the reason why 21 percent of kids cross county borders has a lot to do with simple geography. If you live in L.A. County, but your aunt and uncle live in Ventura County, as was true for Heather, you’ll be placed in Ventura County since, all things being equal, that’s a better solution than asking you to live with strangers in L.A.

For children in FFA placements, the movement is, in part, due to the fact that privately run foster family agencies often span more than one county, and some of those counties do a better job at recruiting foster parents than others. So if the agency can’t find a child a foster home out of their list in one county, they’ll bounce them to a neighboring county.

When it comes to group homes, the cost of doing business is cheaper in suburban and exurban areas than the city centers where many high-needs youth come from. In addition, political pressure to reduce reliance on group homes has been felt most by the urban counties where anti-group home sentiment has taken deepest root. This means that in counties like Alameda and San Francisco, some group homes have been shuttered. As a result, the only place to send the kids who need to be in these higher-level placements is out of county.

The implications for children’s lives can range from the good, where foster youth are placed with family members who welcome and care about them, to the bad, where contact and eventual reunification with biological parents becomes strained by distance, and access to critical mental health services, and other services that the child needs, is often delayed or degraded, if ever delivered.

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance for Children and Family Services, sympathizes with the limited choices court officers and caseworkers often have to work with when placing foster kids.

“They have to make these kinds of Solomonic decisions all the time, and they have to do it at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday,” Schroeder said.


Heather’s case fell into the part good, part bad category.

Her journey began on March 5, 2007. That was the day that DCFS took the 13 year-old from her parents.

The official status review report submitted six months later to the county’s juvenile dependency court described the details of the situation. On that day, “and on numerous prior occasions, the child Heather Matheson’s mother, [redacted], and father, [redacted], have engaged in violent altercations in the presence of the child including father chasing mother in his vehicle… Additionally, father got the child involved in the parent’s arguments by requiring the child to call the mother on father’s behalf.”

What the report neglects to describe is the run-up to her removal. A week before Heather’s father chased her mother in the car, Heather showed up to John A. Sutter Middle School in Winnetka with bruises on her arms, prompting her teacher, who was also her track coach, to report child abuse to DCFS. When a social worker showed up at her parents’ door to investigate, Heather says she was too scared to say anything in front of her father, whom she remembers as being “short fused.”

After the social workers left, Heather’s father flew into a rage. Her mother, who was planning to move to Idaho with a new man, was not at the house.

“He wanted her to come over,” Heather says.

The girl’s father had a gun in his hand, and told Heather to call her mother.

“When I made a big deal that I didn’t want to do that, he hit me with the gun,” Heather says.

The blow knocked the 90-lb. 13 year old unconscious. When Heather came to, she made the call.

“I said, ‘I am scared, Dad has a gun and I don’t want to be there,’” Heather recalls saying.

But she got no help from her mom.

“If you want to live with him, you have to learn how to deal with him. It’s not my problem,” Heather recalls her mother saying.

Heather’s father then forced her into the car, leaving the gun on the dashboard. As he drove wildly from street to street looking for his wife at every motel he could find, Heather remembers watching the gun slide back and forth in front of her.

When the DCFS investigator who had visited Heather’s home days before showed up at school the next day for a scheduled interview with Heather, the frightened girl told the social worker the whole story. After hearing her out, the investigator told Heather she would have to take her to an emergency shelter. At this point Heather’s teacher, who was also in the room, broke in.

“I don’t want her to end up with strangers,” Heather recalls the woman saying. “My husband and I can take her in.”

Despite the teacher’s initial good will, the placement would not last.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care | 1 Comment »

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