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Foster Care


Making Family Visits Easier…a $1.2 Billion Bond Initiative House Homeless…and Immigrants and Crime

September 7th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

THE LA COUNTY SUPES WANT TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR FOSTER FAMILIES TO GET KIDS TO VISITS WITH BIOLOGICAL PARENTS

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to instruct the head of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services to develop a plan to help foster parents get kids to regular visits with their biological families. (These court-ordered visitations help kids and their biological parents bond and improve likelihood of future family reunification.)

LA County is facing a serious shortage of foster families. The hope is that by making required family visits easier for foster parents to fulfill, more people will choose to become foster parents.

The motion, introduced by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Michael Antonovich, directs DCFS (with input from other county departments) to explore the feasibility of contracting with existing ride-sharing services, and providing thorough training, so that drivers can provide trauma-informed transportation services for foster kids.

Currently, foster children in need of transportation to parent visits, which can occur multiple times per week, rely on understaffed DCFS Human Services Aides (HSA) to facilitate the meetings. DCFS will also explore the possibility of hiring more HSAs to serve more kids.

DCFS will also look into expanding the number of available visitation sites to increase options for foster parents and kinship caregivers, and expanding existing “supportive visitation models” to help biological parents learn and practice parenting skills, to increase successful family reunifications.

“Because we already ask so much of our current and prospective resource families, it’s important that the county be as supportive as possible to those who are stepping up to provide a temporary, safe and loving home for our kids,” Supervisor Kuehl said.

DCFS will report back to the board in 90 days with a plan for improving the family visitation system to better serve LA County’s foster youth.


ANOTHER IMPORTANT MOTION APPROVED: SUPES IN SUPPORT OF CITY BOND MEASURE TO HOUSE HOMELESS

The LA County Supervisors also approved a motion to support the City of LA’s Proposition H—a $1.2 billion bond measure to fund large-scale construction of housing for LA’s homeless.

The proposition goes before voters in November, and if approved, would pay for 8,000 to 10,000 permanent supportive housing units for the city’s chronically homeless residents, as well as fund temporary shelters, affordable housing, and other efforts.

“Let’s get on with the business of making a significant dent in homelessness,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the motion’s author. “We cannot afford to allow the status quo to persist – our fellow Angelenos are depending on us.”

For more on the ongoing LA City-County collaborative effort to combat homelessness, read our previous post: here.


INACCURATE PERCEPTIONS ABOUT IMMIGRANTS AND CRIME, AND A RULING TO GRANT BOND HEARINGS TO DETAINEES WHO HAVE COMMITTED MINOR CRIMES

Last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that immigrant detainees in California with prior convictions (and subject to noncitizen mandatory detention) must be granted a bond hearing.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the ACLU of Northern California, and the lawfirm Keker & Van Nest brought the class action lawsuit on behalf of immigrants held in detention for minor—and very old—crimes.

“People who have served their time, turned their lives around, and are supporting their families should not be condemned to mandatory lock-up,” said Michael Tan Staff Attorney at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project (IRP). “In America, everyone should get a chance to see a judge before their freedom is taken away.”

Despite a surplus of discriminatory policies (like the bond-blocking practice reversed by the 9th Circuit) and recent political rhetoric that focuses on the criminality of immigrants, studies have actually shown that statistically, immigrants to commit less crime than native-born Americans.

And the numbers can’t be attributed to any immigrant-specific tendency to avoid self-reporting arrests and crimes committed, according recent research by Bianca Bersani, a sociology professor at UMass Boston, and Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at UT Dallas. The researchers found that first generation immigrants were slightly less likely to under-report their justice system involvement compared with their non-immigrant peers.

In an op-ed for the LA Times,
Bersani and Piquero call on lawmakers, officials, and others in positions of power to “drop the fear-based tactics,” that fuel unjust policies and practices. Here’s a clip:

In a recent study, we investigated whether immigrants have a greater tendency to underreport their offenses than native-born Americans. Over a seven-year period, a large sample of adolescent offenders were tracked and interviewed 10 times. At each interview they were asked if they had been arrested. We then compared these self-reports with official arrest records to check for accuracy.

Bottom line: We found no evidence supporting the idea that immigrants are especially prone to hide their criminal behavior. Over the seven years of the study, immigrants accurately self-reported their arrests 87% of the time, which is slightly more accurate, though not statistically different, than their native-born (86%) and second-generation (84%) peers. The finding that the foreign-born commit less crime than their U.S.-born peers is not a product of differences in reporting practices across these groups.

As the public’s views on immigration policy trend toward support for increased pathways to citizenship, the rhetoric on the immigrant-crime nexus appears particularly resilient to scientific evidence to the contrary. Interest in the rhetoric-reality divide is more than an academic puzzle as exposure to these messages exacerbates fears, fuels anxieties and provokes reactionary responses that are not well conceived, like mass deportation plans or broad stroke exclusionary practices.

Posted in Foster Care | 1 Comment »

Protecting Foster Kids from Over-Prescribing Doctors….DOJ to Require Law Enforcement to Report Officer-Involved Deaths….and More

August 11th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

UPDATES ON BILLS TO PROTECT VULNERABLE FOSTER CHILDREN FROM DOCTORS WHO OVER-PRESCRIBE PSYCHOTROPIC DRUGS

On Wednesday, SB 1174, a bill to combat the excessive and alarming prescribing of psychotropic medications to California’s foster kids, unanimously passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee with 19 yes votes. (For the backstory and context, read Karen de Sá’s powerful five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids.”)

The bill, introduced by Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), would trigger regular reports on physicians and their prescribing patterns of psychotropic medications, making it easier for the Medical Board of California to confidentially identify, conduct investigations of, and hold accountable doctors who over-prescribe psychotropic drugs to foster children.

Sen McGuire pointed out that if passed, SB 1174 would be the strongest legislation of its kind in the nation, and would go a long way toward protecting California’s foster kids, who, McGuire says, have experienced a 1,400% surge in psychotropic and antipsychotic medication prescriptions in the last 15 years.

“It is unconscionable that the state is not acting in the best interest of these foster kids,” Sen. McGuire says. “This legislation stems from a culture that has developed in our State’s foster care system where excessive prescription of psychotropic medication has taken hold and it has lifelong negative impacts on young lives.”

SB 1174 is part of a larger legislative package that includes SB 253, a bill scheduled for an Assembly vote today (Thursday), that would require second medical opinions for prescriptions to kids under five.

Another bill in the package is SB 1291, which would improve monitoring of mental health services provided to Medi-Cal eligible students, including foster youth. The bill has stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The San Jose Mercury News’ has more on the legislative push for reform. Here’s a clip:

McGuire told the committee there are almost 70,000 foster youth in California and that over the past 15 years, the rate of foster youth prescribed psychotropic medications has increased 1,400 percent — with “no way to measure the efficacy of these practices.”

After similar bills were passed in Illinois, Washington and Ohio, he said, those states have witnessed a 25 percent decrease in psychotropic prescriptions to foster youth.

But this bill, said McGuire, would be the strongest in the nation because it provides a state medical board with “the data they need to do their job” to scrutinize the prescribing rates and enforce the legislation.

Iris Hoffman, 20, who spent time in foster care, echoed his comments, telling the committee that the foster care system is “filled with stories of overmedication.”

She said she was prescribed more than one antipsychotic and “countless different medications” for a diagnosis that, she noted, later proved to be incorrect.

“My story is not unique,” Hoffman said. “There are so many people in the system who have had these experiences. There is absolutely no reason not to take a closer look at this” and put in place “some kind of protocol” that will prevent such abuse from happening again.

“Maybe we can focus some of our energy on stopping the overmedication of foster youth that is damaging lives to this moment,” Hoffman implored. “We cannot wait one more day.”

McGuire’s office agreed to amend the bill so doctors would only be triggered for scrutiny once a year, instead of quarterly, and only if they prescribed three or more psychiatric drugs to a child for 90 days or more.”


DOJ TO REQUIRE FULL REPORTING FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES ON “ARREST-RELATED DEATHS”

US Department of Justice officials have announced that the nation’s 19,450 law enforcement agencies will be required to report information on officer-involved deaths to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Currently, the FBI only collects voluntary data from local and state agencies on fatal uses of force by officers.

The system the BJS will use is inspired by The Counted, an ongoing project from the Guardian, which revealed that the FBI numbers only accounted for about half of officer-involved killings.

Rather than relying solely on self-reporting from law enforcement agencies, the BJS will collect data from media sources and have law enforcement and local medical examiner’s and coroner’s offices confirm information gathered about arrest-related deaths.

Besides reporting the numbers, departments will also be required to include specifics, like whether an individual was armed or unarmed, the events leading up to a fatal encounter, and the demographics of those killed by law enforcement.

This year, agencies will report once, at the end of the year, after which, they will be required to turn in their data once every quarter.

The Guardian’s Jon Swaine has more on the changes. Here’s a clip:

The new system is being overseen by the department’s bureau of justice statistics (BJS). It would, like the Guardian’s, document deaths caused by physical force, Taser shocks and some vehicle crashes caused by law enforcement in addition to fatal shootings by officers. A Washington Post tally counts fatal shootings by police.

In their Federal Register article, officials cited their authority under the death in custody reporting act – a law that states local departments must report all deaths in custody to the justice department or lose 10% of their federal funding. The law has been largely ignored since being reauthorized in December 2014.

The BJS carried out a trial of its new system that monitored deaths between 1 June and 31 August last year. Officials working on the pilot program cited The Counted as an influence on the initiative and a source for its information…

According to the announcement, police departments will be asked later this year to report once for all arrest-related deaths during 2016, before moving to the quarterly reporting process next year.

Under the new government program, all 19,450 American law enforcement agencies will be sent a form by the BJS that requires information on all the department’s arrest-related deaths in the past quarter of the year.

Deaths that were already noticed in media reports will be listed by the BJS for confirmation or correction by the local departments. Space will be included for the local department to list additional deaths that were not previously noticed. Departments that have seen no arrest-related deaths that quarter will be asked to return “an affirmative zero” saying so.

A second form seeking extensive information about the circumstances of each death will be sent to the local department responsible. It will require local officials to detail similar data to that logged by The Counted, such as demographic information on every person killed, how the deadly encounter began and whether the person was armed.

Other forms will be sent to the 685 medical examiner’s and coroner’s offices asking them to also confirm details of deaths that have been noticed in public sources. They, too, will be asked to return forms with details of any other deaths that went unnoticed.


SOLANO PRISONERS DECORATE THOUSANDS OF BAGS TO BENEFIT FIGHT AGAINST CANCER

Inmate artists at Vacaville State Prison, Solano—some of whom are battling cancer themselves—decorated around 2,500 white paper lunch bags with nature scenes, angels, flowers, hearts, tattoo-style art, and more, as part of an art show to benefit the American Cancer Society.

The bags—each dedicated to a person fighting cancer or lost to cancer—will be lit with candlelight and used to illuminate a school track during a nighttime Relay for Life.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Dianne Reber Hart has the story. Here’s a clip:

Their original artwork, done in everything from crayons to acrylics, is part of an American Cancer Society fundraiser. The bags will circle a school track during an overnight Relay for Life event, each glowing by candlelight as a luminaria dedicated to someone battling or lost to cancer.

Collectively, the bags are both a tribute and an art show, an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for the fight against cancer.

A newly formed group within Vacaville’s California State Prison, Solano called Artists Serving Humanity decorated some 2,500 bags, each one checked by prison staff for inappropriate language, graphics or gang insignia.

The majority of bags passed clearance, many with tender images of angels, hearts, flowers, stars, clouds, crosses and hands clasped in prayer. Others show detailed landscapes of mountains, streams, sunsets, sandy beaches and palm trees — scenery far removed from inmates locked within the medium-security prison.

There also are abstracts, Teddy bears, words of hope and encouragement, and designs more typical of graffiti or tattoo art, each a one-of-a-kind tribute. Several were completed by inmates battling cancer.

“There are a lot of artists incarcerated and we want to give them a creative outlet that has positive implications for the community,” said Eric Lahti, the GED teacher at the prison who oversees Artists Serving Humanity. “It’s to help make up for all the harm they’ve done.”

This is an initial public effort for the new group of 100 inmate artists. Previously, artwork has been completed to brighten the waiting area for visitors.

Posted in Foster Care | 1 Comment »

L.A.’s One-and-Only Native American Foster Mom – by Daniel Heimpel

June 21st, 2016 by witnessla


MEET L.A.’S ONE AND ONLY NATIVE AMERICAN FOSTER MOM

A look at the urgent need for foster families to give LA County’s Native American foster kids a place to belong.

by Daniel Heimpel


Lisa Smith and her two daughters peer out the front windows of their Diamond Bar, California, home.

“We were that anxious,” 49-year-old Smith says, recalling the afternoon in March.

They see a car pull up, and hurry to the curb. Inside are the two boys the family has been waiting for.

Smith immediately takes the younger boy, still a toddler, in her arms while her teenage daughter holds the hand of the older one.

Newly expanded, the family, alongside a pair of social workers, walks into the house and heads straight for the boys’ new room. For weeks, Smith, her husband and their three children have been stocking the bedroom with toys, baby clothes and the blankets that the Smith children slept in when they were little.

“This is home,” Smith tells the older boy. “These toys are yours forever.”

Smith cries with joy, overcome.

And while the transition is, on its face, easy, something about it concerns Smith.

The boys don’t ask when they will be going back home.

“They wanted to stay,” Smith explains. “And that’s hard – for them to not have that bond to where they came from.”

For Smith, the boys’ severance from their family strikes a chord. Like them, Smith grew up a member of the Cherokee Nation. She can track her roots back to the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s, when thousands of her ancestors were marched west from their native lands. For Native children, foster care is often the final tug that forever breaks the strands of shared tribal culture.

Smith wants to turn back the clock, rebuild the boys’ lives and strengthen her tribe. That’s why, only weeks before this bittersweet moment, she decided to become Los Angeles County’s one-and-only Native American foster mom.

“Within, you carry that pride, and you carry that pride onto the next generation,” Smith says. “And that’s what I am hoping, that with the children, I can serve to let them know that you’re a part of something larger, part of our [Cherokee] family here and across the United States.”

But for Native American children who enter the foster care system, being placed with a Native foster parent is far from guaranteed. Mistrust, a lack of accountability and a decades-long dearth of initiative has led many child welfare jurisdictions, Los Angeles included, to remain wildly out of compliance with federal legislation aimed at keeping tribes and Native families intact.


TERMINATION & RELOCATION = FOSTER CARE

L.A. County is home to one of the largest urban Native American populations in the country. Members of the great tribes – Cherokee, Choctaw and Navajo – are part of a diverse 152,000-person community, which also includes the local Tongva, Tataviam and some southern Chumash peoples.

Many, like Smith’s family, came during the Termination and Relocation Era, which started in the late 1940s and ran through the 50s, when the U.S. Congress set out on an explicit policy to assimilate Native Americans by forcing them to relinquish their lands and sovereignty. Tribes’ assets were liquidated, and their children were removed into foster care at increasing rates.

Relocation entailed offers of jobs, housing, job training and cash awards to Native families in exchange for moving off their lands and into urban centers like Los Angeles. These promised supports often did not materialize. Smith’s relatives fell into poverty, forcing her grandmother to engage in prostitution to support the family.

Smith holds onto photos of her uncle, James Cantrell, picking cotton and pears in the San Joaquin Valley in 1949, one year after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officially launched its Relocation Program. She calls the photos “propaganda.”

“Who smiles when they’re picking cotton?” she asks sardonically.

For Smith’s family, and that of many other Native Americans, the dual policies of Termination and Relocation threatened to erase tribal bonds already frayed by successive waves of U.S. efforts to snuff out Native culture.

In Los Angeles and across the U.S., Native Americans, lured from their ancestral lands and the reservations they had been moved to, had to submit to the same laws that governed all Americans, including its child-protection policies.

In California and Los Angeles in particular, Native Americans soon found their children entering foster care at disproportionately high rates. According to the Children’s Data Network, a research institution housed within the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, nearly 9 percent of all 839 Native American children born in California in 2006 and 2007 would enter foster care by age 5, compared to 2.4 percent of white babies and 6.4 percent of black babies. The same held true in L.A. County, where 10.9 percent of Native children entered foster care by their fifth birthday, compared to 2 percent of white children and 7 percent of black children.


THE CHALLENGE OF RECRUITING NATIVE AMERICAN FOSTER PARENTS

Today, the Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which oversees the county’s foster care system, says that it cares for 169 Native American children, 120 of whom are handled by the so-called “American Indian Unit.” Despite being established in 1999, the 10-person team has long struggled to recruit and retain Native American foster parents like Lisa Smith.

This struggle is rooted in the understandable mistrust the Native American community has of government agencies, and inconsistent efforts by the non-native child welfare system to let Native Americans lead foster parent recruitment efforts.

“Historically, when you look at the nature of the relationship between government and American Indians in general, there’s a history of distrust there,” says Robert Rodriguez, the American Indian Unit’s supervisor. “And, so, it has been very difficult, I think, for us to break through the barrier, to get that trust from the community and for them to understand the process.”

Rodriguez, who is of Yaqui and Comanche descent, is sitting next to David White, the regional administrator who oversees the unit, who has no Native blood.

The two cannot recall DCFS recruiting any Native foster homes despite both having spent years in the American Indian Unit. In 2014 they decided things had to change, and stepped up their efforts. So when Smith agreed to care for the two Cherokee boys this past February, it was a big moment.

“We are very protective of her,” White says.

Smith says she had serious misgivings about working with a foster care system known for dismantling Native families.

“It took me some time before I trusted DCFS and the American Indian Unit,” she says. “I had to see that they were coming with the right intentions and the right way to make a difference for our children.”

For Sherry White, a Ho-Chunk Indian originally from Wisconsin, and a close confidant of Smith’s within Los Angeles’ vibrant Native community, mistrust of the system started at an early age. White was placed into foster care with a white family at the age of 2. She refers to her foster mom as “Suzy Homemaker” and her foster father as “Satan.”

After leaving care at 17 to attend college, White had two children of her own. In 1982, after a particularly cold Wisconsin winter, she packed her two boys up and moved to Los Angeles.

Her boys now men and she now 61, White is seeing the system from a new perspective, as the informal foster mom to a brother and sister who hail from the Lakota tribe. Despite her own terrible experience with the foster care system, she decided that she needed to get involved.

“When I think about our Native children being placed in non-Native homes, which is something that is happening to about 200 children in L.A. County because of the lack of Native foster homes, [it] gets me a little riled up inside,” White says. “If the families do not let the children know they are Native and can’t teach them their Native culture, their traditions, their language, we’ve lost our children.”

The children grow up knowing they’re different, knowing that there’s something special about them, and they may grow angry, [and] they don’t know why they’re angry because nobody’s taught them that they are special.”

While Smith’s decision to take in two Cherokee boys gives the American Indian unit a sense of pride, it also points to a foster care system both here and across the country that gives federally mandated protections of Native American foster children short shrift.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care | 2 Comments »

Serving LA’s LGBT Foster Kids

June 16th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

A UNIQUE PROGRAM IN LA COUNTY TEACHES FOSTER CARE PROVIDERS AND SOCIAL WORKERS ABOUT LGBT KIDS

Los Angeles County has implemented a first-of-its-kind training model to educate social workers and foster parents about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids, with the goal of reducing homophobia and giving LGBT foster kids a better chance at getting placed in accepting homes.

But LA County still struggles to find welcoming foster parents for LGBT kids in the child welfare system. Part of the problem is that social workers aren’t always aware that a child identifies as LGBT. Another problem is that the county is dealing with a major shortage of available foster families. LA County’s RISE program—created by the Los Angeles LGBT Center through a $13.3 million federal grant—aims to educate the foster parents that are out there, while providing support to struggling gay homeless and foster youth in need of caring homes.

In Los Angeles County, 20% of foster kids identify as (LGBT). To put that in perspective, LGBT young people represent just 7% of the nation’s general youth population.

Many LGBT former foster kids (and non-LGBT foster kids) end up homeless after they age out of the system. An estimated 40% of the 1.6 million homeless youth living in the US identify as LGBT. The majority of LGBT homeless teens are either rejected by their parents and forced out of their homes, have run away, faced abuse at home, or have aged out of the child welfare system, and without adequate support, have become homeless. LGBT teens are also more than twice as likely as heterosexual teens to attempt suicide.

Back in 2012, state legislators passed a law that orders care providers and foster parents to attend a yearly education session focused on LGBT children, their unique needs, and the difficulties they face. That training, however, is just 60 minutes a year.

The comprehensive Los Angeles program is still in its early stages, but has the potential to serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

KPCC’s Leo Duran has the story. Here’s how it opens:

Juana Zacharias is 18, and she’s like other teenage girls her age.

She loves make-up, has a closet overflowing with cute clothes and talks about how to date a Latina like her (“Just give us the password to your phone and a bag of hot Cheetos, we’ll be totally good.”)

But Juana isn’t like most girls – she’s trans. She is also a foster child who lives at a group home in Oxnard with five other kids.

She’s one of over 400,000 foster children in America. In Los Angeles, 20 percent of those kids identify as LGBT according to UCLA – which is double the rate of LGBT kids outside the foster care system.

Juana spent the last seven years in the system, herself, after her father passed away and her mother rejected her, moving from group home to group home.

“My first group home I didn’t identify as a transgender because I was scared,” she says. “All my girl clothes? I kind of made them into guy clothes.”

Experts say it would be better if foster children like Juana lived with foster parents.

“You need to go home to Thanksgiving. You need somebody to take you to the dentist or the airport,” says foster care expert Khush Cooper.

But kids like Juana had problems finding parents – sometimes even group homes – who are accepting.

“The probation officers even said to me it’s hard to find a placement for you because you’re transgender. A lot of people don’t want transgenders,” says Juana.

Los Angeles has been testing out ways to change that, but the future of those programs is uncertain.

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

When Calif. Closes Its Problematic Group Homes Will LA’s Neediest Foster Kids Have Somewhere Better to Go? – by Sara Tiano & Brittany Reid

May 23rd, 2016 by witnessla

FINDING FAMILY

A New California Law Will Soon Close the State’s Scandal-Plagued Group Homes.
So Where Will That Leave LA County’s Most Vulnerable Foster Kids?


by Sara Tiano and Brittany Reid


SCARY GROUP HOMES

Katrina Alston wasn’t trained as a therapist, social worker or anything of that nature when she worked at a Pasadena, California, group home for emotionally troubled teenage girls in the Los Angeles County foster care system. She simply went through a weeklong training process and two weeks of job shadowing.

With that scant preparation, Alston was charged with the care of at least six of the home’s 19 adolescents at a time when she was on shift.

Now, Alston is a social worker with the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). It’s her job to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and remove children from their parents if need be.

In the year and a half she has been working for DCFS, she’s needed to remove dozens of children from their parents. But she’s only brought one child to a group home.

Knowing what Alston knows about the way such facilities work, having seen what she’s seen as an employee at a group home she called “well-run, relatively,” is partly what stops her from bringing more kids to any similar facility, she said.

“It was wild,” she said. And not in a good way.

Sometimes, Alston said, she wondered how much the placements she was involved in were actually helping kids. “Are they getting better, or are they getting worse here?” She also often doubted how capable the system was of safely handling the many crises that arise for already traumatized children who enter foster care. “It was scary,” she said.

SHUTTERING DUMPING GROUNDS

In 2017, California’s group homes will be shutting down— or changing, at the very least — in the wake of new legislation passed in September 2015. The measure aims to move the state’s foster care system toward encouraging family-based placements for all foster children.

AB 403 “would provide for the reclassification of treatment facilities and the transition from the use of group homes for children in foster care to the use of short-term residential treatment centers,” according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest appended to the bill.

This, in effect, would mean that children would have to exhibit a “clinical need” in order to be placed in a non-home residences, and that any such placement would be temporary.

Critics of the bill argue that closing group homes will hurt kids in a system that already suffers from too few foster care beds, and that tough-to-place kids who may have behavioral issues but don’t meet the “clinical need” qualifications will be especially affected.

Supporters of the bill argue that group homes often serve as dumping grounds for those same hard-to-place kids, who wind up still further underserved and developmentally disadvantaged.

Group homes are community-style residential settings where anywhere from six to more than 60 kids and teens live in a facility staffed 24 hours per day by a rotating crew of shift
workers, like Katrina Alston. The homes are categorized on a scale of 1-14 based on the level of behavioral, emotional and medical challenges among the residents.

Residents at a Level 14 home would be those kids who were the most “emotionally disturbed,” and prone to behaviors such as violence, running away and inflicting self-injury. Alston describes these acute care facilities in even harsher terms. “Level 14 is a juvenile psych ward,” she said.

Kids placed in lower-level group homes, though, may be just as hard to place for other reasons, such as age, lack of extended family to lean on or low chance of permanent placement. The rating of group homes also dictates the staff-to-resident ratio. At the Level 12 where Alston worked, the ratio was 1-6.

The staff of these homes are not required by law to have any sort of education or degree related to working with their resident populations — namely children suffering neglect, abuse and trauma. Their preparation includes 24 hours of classroom training they receive upon being hired and 20 hours annually of supplemental instruction, as required by California’s Department of Social Services.

The proposed replacement for group homes, short-term residential treatment centers (STRTC), would require a child be assessed with a “clinical need” for a more restrictive and differently equipped environment than a family home setting can provide, as judged by either the DCFS or a physician.

The duration of stays in STRTCs would be time-limited. Once residents are on a treatment plan and stable enough to live in a less restrictive environment, they will be placed in foster homes deemed equipped to handle their needs and set up with in-home services to further their treatment.

Group homes in California came under national scrutiny in recent years after a series of very public closures that included reports of abuse and neglect, along with harrowing tales of children missing from the home for days at a time. While this worst-case scenario of supposed protectors abusing the already abused was being highlighted in the media, a report came out suggesting that, even in the best-case scenario, group living situations aren’t an adequate option for kids who are separated from their families.



KIDS NEED FAMILIES

In January 2015, the California Department of Social Services sent a foster care reform report to the state Legislature recommending that the state mandate the closure of group homes and build out support for a family-centric foster care system.

Among the evidence provided against group homes in this report were allegations that children who go through reunification with their families after a stint in a group home are more likely to re-enter the foster care system than are those who are placed solely with families.

Further, the report cited studies showing that placement in a group home is correlated with significantly higher rates of arrest, as well as among the lowest rates of high school graduation when compared to other kids in the foster system. The report also said that many of the kids who’d come out of group homes had “articulated the need for permanency, normal childhood and teenage experiences, and caregivers who understand their needs.”

The latter sentiment was echoed by Alston, the group home staffer turned DCFS social worker. Her superior, Kelly Schreiner, who is the assistant director for the Metro North division of the department, also bullishly advocates for the need to prioritize keeping children with their family, if at all possible, when developing interventions in cases of abuse or neglect. She has made it the directive for her staff.

“Most of my cases, I don’t open,” said Alston, illustrating Schreiner’s position. “Most of my cases, we don’t detain, we don’t get involved. Or if we do, we get involved in the least restrictive way possible. Which might be, ‘This kid could benefit from therapy, let’s get him into therapy. What is this immediate need? How do we address that so we don’t have to be involved?’”

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, expressed a similar point of view on what he describes as the most beneficial kind of environment for foster youth.

“Non-family environments are the worst kind of care for children,” he said with emphasis. While Wexler believes group homes can’t be eradicated entirely, explaining they are truly the only option in a small number of dire cases, Wexler thinks closing down as many group facilities as possible would be a “vast improvement for the children.” He added that, in Chicago, children “have gotten safer” since group homes started closing.

Like many critics of AB 403 who are concerned that closing group homes will leave kids with nowhere to go, Wexler expressed similar worries about the shortage of foster care beds, though he doesn’t consider the legislation to be the root of that issue. “It’s not that LA has too few foster parents, LA has too many foster children.” Wexler points to figures indicating that LA has the third-highest rate of removal among America’s 10 largest cities.

The family-focused intervention plans codified in the new legislation certainly aim to decrease the rate of removal. But the drop in bed count associated with eliminating group homes as an option for placement may force social workers to opt for removing kids in fewer cases — which worries some child advocates who point to horror stories like that of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez who was killed after DCFS workers failed to remove him from an extremely abusive household quickly enough.

Still, Schreiner said 75 percent of the cases that come through her office are closed without a detention — the term used when a child is removed from his or her parent. But, she said, LA County “still takes too many kids without trying to give them adequate services in the home.”



WRAP AROUND

Schreiner and Wexler both think the best way to work with kids struggling at home is to work with the family by bringing in the services necessary to facilitate functional relationships between parents and children, rather than removing kids, in both biological families and foster families.

This is called the “wraparound method,” in which the family unit is the focal point of an intervention, with community and social services “wrapped around” the home in support. This method was also recommended in the Department of Social Services’ foster reform report. All three — Schreiner, Wexler and the report — suggest that the successful application of wraparound services will reduce the overall need for group homes and even perhaps foster homes in general.

The sentiments toward the short-term residential treatment centers that are designated as the replacement for group homes hasn’t yet crystallized. In general, it seems even the biggest decriers of group homes recognize that, for some children in the system, there is a very real need for treatment more intensive than what can be provided through wraparound services, at least for a time. In that regard, there doesn’t seem to be much pushback on maintaining that service in some form.

Wexler is concerned that the mandate of “clinical need” and categorization as a “treatment center” essentially make the STRTCs an in-house psychiatric ward for the foster care system.

“I worry that as you say you’re closing group homes, you’re institutionalizing institutionalization with this designation,” he said of the new legislation.

Schreiner, for her part, is even more wary of the new centers. According to her, the same organizations that operated the group homes will be operating the new STRTCs.

She’s got a point.


SAME PLAYERS DIFFERENT LABELS?

The text of the bill details the way existing group homes transfer to STRTC status when the law goes into effect in 2017. Though the methods outlined in the legislation don’t guarantee compliance, and some even argue that the burden and cost of retraining and reclassification would be too much for some centers, there’s no denying that existing centers do have the infrastructure and, now, the incentive to provide this new service.

“And if it’s the same people, how much better is it really going to be?” Schreiner asks.
In the final Senate analysis of the bill, the authors point out the need for counties to increase the number of foster families quickly to maintain enough beds for all the kids in the system. The law does allocate $17 million to fund recruitment and retention of foster parents and funding services for foster families.

Alston thinks it will take more than that, financially speaking, to really support the foster system the way it requires. She thinks foster parenting should be a profession, and salaried as such, if people are being asked to play this crucial role in the welfare and development of at-risk, in-need children. As it stands, foster parents make $657 to $820 monthly for each child in their care.

The eradication of the group home system seems to have significant support from those working in child welfare, according to those quoted here. And AB 430 indicates that lawmakers in California are serious about reforming the foster care system.

What remains to be seen is how the execution of STRTCs will turn out when the transition does take place. If the funding allocated isn’t enough to build a foster family stock sufficient to fill the gap created by the shuttered group homes, the shortage of options for kids in the system could be intensified. If inadequate group home organizations revamp themselves into the STRTCs without taking necessary steps to improve, they run the risk of continuing to be the toxic environment Alston described, or worse.

Hopefully, given the stakes and the catalysts for change, enough oversight will be in place this time around to prevent the latter, and to troubleshoot any other problems as they arise. In the meantime, LA County’s leadership has their work cut out for them: They’ve got foster families to recruit.



This story is the 5th in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.


Photos by Sara Tiano, audio by Brittany Reid

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LA County Child Abuse and Neglect Report…Sheriff McDonnell on AirTalk…and Rehabilitation, Reentry, and “Human Frailty”

May 11th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

REPORT GIVES RECOMMENDATIONS ON HOW TO BETTER CATCH AND PREVENT CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT

On Tuesday, the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN) presented a colossal, 310-page report on child abuse and neglect in LA County to LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell and LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

The council, brought into being by the LA County Board of Supervisors in the ’70s, gathers data from—and direct recommendations to—county agencies that have a role in child safety and welfare.

Among the more noteworthy recommendations, was a call for the Department of Children and Family Services, Probation, LASD, LAPD and other agencies to share case information with hospital staff to help identify and prevent (or treat) child abuse. The report points out that the 63 LA County-area hospitals, which see 400 injured toddlers and newborns every day, may not have adequate abuse and neglect screening in place, highlighting the need for structured inter-agency information sharing.

There were 181,926 referrals to DCFS of child abuse or neglect during 2014, up 3% over the previous year, and the highest referral rate in nearly two decades. The report suggests that the increase in referrals may have played some part in the county’s decrease in the number of kids killed by parents or caregivers, which dropped from 19 in 2013 to 15 in 2014. “It appears that more referrals result in safer children,” the report reads.

The report points out that LA County, which oversees the nation’s largest child welfare system, is uniquely positioned to serve as a model for other cities, counties, and states.

Read the rest of the recommendations and dive into the report: here.


“HUMAN FRAILTY” AND THE LIMITATIONS OF REHABILITATION STRATEGIES FOR REDUCING RECIDIVISM

The Boston Reentry Study, which followed 135 male and female state prisoners as they returned to their Boston neighborhoods between 2012 and 2013, found their subjects experienced a high degree of childhood trauma (including violence at home), and were often previously victims of the same violent crimes for which they were later incarcerated.

In an op-ed for the New Yorker, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, one of the Boston Reentry researchers, found what he termed an underlying vulnerability, or “human frailty,” among some former offenders. Western says that drug addiction and mental illness, often co-occurring with physical maladies, stack the odds against former offenders trying to successfully reenter society. This points to a need for healing interventions much earlier than rehabilitation and other treatment programs can provide, if we really want to reduce prison populations and recidivism rates, Western says. Here are some clips (but go over and read the whole thing, as it’s an interesting take on a complex issue):

It’s no surprise that physical and mental problems go together. Addicts often struggle with issues like chronic pain or manifestations of post-traumatic stress; physical ailments can feed depression and other emotional problems. Those who study poverty and inequality often point to the poor schooling and bad work histories of disadvantaged people. But disadvantage can run much deeper than educational failure and unemployment. In many cases, it has a physical reality that limits a person’s capacity to think clearly, without pain, and to bring energy to daily affairs. Sometimes, a feedback loop takes hold. People with physical- and mental-health problems spend disproportionate time in community health clinics and other institutions for the vulnerable and poor; such places can both help and hurt them. During Aman’s time at Bridgewater, for example, he received treatment for his schizophrenia but was also assaulted by another inmate.

Over the course of the Boston Reentry Study, my team and I wrestled with the problem of how to describe the vulnerability of people like Aman. Ultimately, we settled on “human frailty,” borrowing a term from demographers who study patterns of death across the population. More ambiguous alternatives, like “vulnerability,” could describe the condition of a healthy person who finds him or herself in an unhealthy situation. “Human frailty,” by contrast, inheres within an individual’s mind and body. It persists even when your environment changes.

Among the people we interviewed, mental and physical frailty were startlingly common. In many cases, those frailties derailed their efforts to become better parents, children, neighbors, and citizens.

[SNIP]

The lesson we can learn from frail prisoners like Aman and Carla is that life is a one-way street. Rehabilitative programs are often too little, too late; we need to intercede early. In talking about their lives, our respondents often recalled schools that were unable to respond to serious behavioral or learning problems except through suspension or expulsion. They described how their slides into heroin or crack addiction led straight into the criminal-justice system, rather than into an addiction program. They described using marijuana or heroin to ameliorate chronic mental or physical pain that had gone untreated for years. Our social safety net focusses most of its limited resources on poor mothers, their children, and the elderly; unattached adults often slip through it. It’s only after untreated addiction and mental illness lead to arrests and incarceration that they get help. By investing more in drug treatment, health care, and housing programs, we could offer a basic level of material and bodily security for people with broken minds and bodies who must try and adjust to life after prison.

A realistic public policy, moreover, needs to recognize that stable housing, employment, and a functional family life may be out of reach for the most fundamentally disadvantaged. In these cases, human dignity can at least be respected by enabling the effort to struggle for it. This means, sometimes, providing a place to stay, a transitional job, and support for families even when the outcome is uncertain. In these cases, the struggle itself is intrinsically meaningful. It is meaningful for clients who might envision a better future. It is also meaningful for society as a whole to do something more than abandon the least capable among us. This is difficult ground for our criminal-justice system. From the perspective of human frailty, a program that barely reduces recidivism may still succeed in the formidable challenge of treating with decency people convicted of violence who have struggled all their lives with mental illness, addiction, and disability.


LA COUNTY SHERIFF DISCUSSES TOM ANGEL, PROP 47, AND MORE ON AIRTALK

On KPCC’s AirTalk, Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell talked with host Larry Mantle about the Tom Angel scandal, why deputies shot into moving cars so many times in 2015(link), what effect former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s recent conviction has on the department, and Prop. 47′s savings.

Here are some clips:

…LAPD claims it shot into two vehicles during the years 2010-2014. In both incidents, officers said that the suspects were armed. With the Sheriff’s Department, there were nine times between 2010 and 2014 where deputies fired into the vehicles. In only one case was the person armed with a gun. What’s your response? Do you think those statistics are troubling?

It’s something I want to take a much closer look at. I’m thankful to KPCC for doing the study and giving us some data to look at. I looked at 2015, and we had eight incidents involving shooting at vehicles. Four of those eight incidents have been reviewed administratively by our executive force review committee. Two of those four cases reviewed by the committee contained policy violations, so we’ll deal with those within the system. Four cases in 2015 are still in the review process. There were two shooting-at-vehicle incidents so far in 2016, and they’re both still under review. I believe the unions are in the review process right now with a new and improved policy to make it clearer to folks what our expectations are with regard to shooting at moving vehicles. Across the board, I think there’s universal agreement that it’s not particularly effective, there is potential danger to bystanders and others, and if you can get out of the way of the moving vehicle that’s really goal number one.

So, typically in an investigation, if there is firing on a moving car, the key is going to be whether the deputy felt like he or she was under imminent threat of injury by the vehicle. Will that be the determinant here?

Ultimately, that would be for any use of force. For shooting at a moving vehicle, if the vehicle is the weapon and the individual is not posing an additional threat with a gun or some other type of weapon, our direction on that is do not shoot at the vehicle and move out of the way. We don’t say that universally. There are situations that could arise where it could be an appropriate use of force, where using force in that manner would stop their ability to hurt others. That’s very risky and it’s not a good practice overall, but there are some situations where you come down to the end of the line and you don’t have an alternative.

[SNIP]

Your chief of staff Tom Angel resigned last week after publication of emails he sent while the assistant [police] chief in Burbank. He’d forwarded jokes that made fun of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups. I know it’s a personnel matter, which limits what you can say, but in a case like that with an employee found responsible for something like this, why isn’t an apology sufficient?

Look at the business we’re in. It’s all based on our relationship with the communities we serve. Los Angeles County is probably one of the most diverse counties in the world. It’s critical that we have a great relationship with all of those communities to do our job as well as it can be done. I was quoted as saying that I did not intend to discipline, but the conversation actually was that I had to speak with county council to determine what discipline was available to us because happened four years prior and when he was with another organization. We’ve done a lot of community outreach and are looking at this as an opportunity for all of us to take away some lessons learned and to repair relationships with our community.


ICAN cover art by Eugene Park.

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Foster Kids’ Rights, Suspensions in the OC, LA City Approves Officer Rape Settlement

April 21st, 2016 by Taylor Walker

STRENGTHENING THE FOSTER YOUTH BILL OF RIGHTS TO PROTECT AND EMPOWER KIDS IN THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM

The Foster Youth Bill of Rights, enacted in 2001, says that (among dozens of other rights) foster children have the right to live in a safe and comfortable home, free from abuse, with enough clothes and healthy food, and the ability to visit with and contact siblings, parents, and other family members, and participate in after school and social activities.

Foster kids also have the right to refuse medication—a particularly noteworthy right considering California’s epidemic of doctors over-prescribing psychotropic drugs to foster kids. (For more on that issue, read Karen de Sá’s series, “Drugging Our Kids,” for the San Jose Mercury News.)

But in the 15 years that the law has been in effect, it has shown its weaknesses. Foster kids are sometimes not even aware of their rights, and often, ones that do know their rights don’t report rights violations out of fear that they will be removed from their homes or face retaliation by their caregiver.

A bill sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Compton) would update and improve on the original Foster Youth Bill of Rights. A working group would be tasked with identifying the rights of kids in the child welfare system, and review the way foster youth are notified about those rights. The bill is sailing through the legislature without opposition. Anna Johnson, of the National Center for Youth Law, says she hopes the working group’s recommendations will look something like this:

- Establishment of a required form, filled out by the social worker and signed off by foster youth every six months to vouch that the youth were informed of their rights under the law. This proposal is intended to increase accountability in making sure information on the law is properly disseminated.

- Information on the law being made available on a more user-friendly website as well as on phone apps in order to reach its intended audience.

- Clearer outlines to foster youth of their rights to mental health services.

Glenn Daigon has more on the issue for The Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

Findings in the 2013 Annual Report released by the Office of the California Foster Care Ombudsman demonstrate how the Foster Youth Bill of Rights is falling short:

“In some instances during interviews and presentations to youth in foster care, the FCO [Foster Care Ombudsman], found that not all social workers had reviewed the foster youth rights with dependent children as required by W&IC section 16501.1(f)(4). Children and youth in foster care reported to the FCO that they were not always aware that they had rights and that no one had informed them of their rights.”

The report goes on to say that some children and youth didn’t talk to their social worker or attorney about rights violations out of fear of being removed from their current home or that their caregiver might retaliate.

These problems with the law’s implementation were also reflected in an August 2015 hearing on foster group home reviews by the California Department of Social Services. When foster youth in group homes were asked if they or their peers would receive a negative consequence if they refused to take their psychotropic medications, 49 out of the 76 responded “yes.”

Vanessa Hernandez of California Youth Connection, a foster youth advocacy group, also highlighted the underperformance of the current law. “Caregivers were accessing ombudsman services at a greater rate than foster youth. This is a clear sign that the information was not being properly disseminated,” Hernandez said.

Tisha Ortiz, a Youth Advocate with the National Center for Youth Law, got a bird’s eye view of this problem. She was a client in the California foster care system from 2001 to 2010. During that time, she witnessed the following abuses against herself and/or her peers:

- Verbal abuse by group home staff, particularly when it came to disparaging overweight clients.
- The use of food as a weapon, i.e. the lack of adequate portion sizes at meals for some.
- Punishment for refusing to take medications in the form of stripping almost all personal belongings, extended lock– ups and isolation in rooms, and not being allowed to leave the group home for extended periods of time.
- Use of excessive manual labor, sometimes up to four hours of heavy physical work, as a punishment for some clients.
- A staff member putting his fingers down Ms. Ortiz’s throat in an attempt to force feed her medications.

According to Ms. Ortiz, group home staff did not review the Foster Youth Bill of Rights with clients. She was only vaguely aware of the law through a poster. Ortiz felt that if more foster children knew about their right to complain to an ombudsman, their right to refuse taking medications and other legal rights, then these types of abuses in the system would be drastically reduced.


AM IN-DEPTH LOOK AT ORANGE COUNTY’S SUSPENSION RATES: MOST DISTRICTS ARE REDUCING SUSPENSIONS, BUT THE OC’S LARGEST DISTRICT IS DOING THE OPPOSITE

Thanks to a statewide push to reduce harsh school discipline, California has seen a 33% drop in out-of-school suspensions between the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 school years.

For the most part, Orange County school districts’ suspension rates lined up with the state trend, according to a Voice of OC analysis of CA Department of Education and UCLA Civil Rights Project data.

Huntington Beach Union High reduced suspensions by 64% during that time period. And Santa Ana Unified, the largest of the OC’s 28 districts, cut suspension rates by 58%.

There were two districts that broke from the pack, however—Anaheim Union High and Tustin Unified—which reported a 203% and 45% spike in suspensions, respectively.

Anaheim’s suspensions rose in every category—weapons, drugs, violence with injury, violence without injury, disruption/defiance, and “other.” Specifically, suspensions for violence with injury jumped from 42 during the 2011-2012 school year, to 684 during the 2013-2014 school year. Willful defiance suspensions increased from 332 to 487. Tustin Unified showed a similar pattern: willful defiance suspensions went from zero during 2011-2012, to 259 during 2013-2014.

Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, and Oakland Unified have recently banned suspensions for willful defiance—a harmful catchall term for most anything that can pass as disruptive behavior, and is used disproportionately on students of color. In 2014, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning expulsions for willful defiance for every grade, K-12, and willful defiance suspensions for kids in grades K-3. (We at WLA will be interested to see what that law, which went into effect in 2015, will have on school discipline numbers for the current school year.)

Here’s a clip from Voice of OC’s Thy Vo’s analysis:

It’s unclear why Anaheim and Tustin are going in the opposite direction from most other OC school districts. But we can consider a few factors that come into play.

Anaheim Union High is the only district in the county that saw increases in every category of suspensions. The largest increases were seen in suspensions for violence with injury — from 42 to 684; for drug offenses, which spiked from 74 to 462; and for willful defiance, which went from 332 to 487.

Suspensions increased in every category but weapons in Tustin Unified. The largest jump was in suspensions for willful defiance, which went from zero during the 2011-12 school year to 259 in 2013-14.

The increase in the two districts in willful defiance suspensions — a loose term for acting out in class — is surprising given that they have been dropping rapidly statewide.

Countywide, suspensions decreased in every category, with the 53 percent drop in willful defiance suspensions being the largest. Suspensions for violence with injury was the only category to increase, with 17 percent more suspensions in 2014 than 2011.

The increase was driven by a handful of schools where violent incidents are increasing: Anaheim Union High, Tustin Unified, Brea Olinda Unified, Los Alamitos Unified and La Habra City Elementary.

Nationwide, minority students, English learners and students with disabilities have the highest rates of suspension.

A 2015 Report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project highlighting the “school discipline gap” found that in 2011-12, black students were suspended at the highest rates — 23 percent — followed by disabled students at 18 percent, American Indians at 12 percent, and Latinos and English learners at 11 percent. Meanwhile, 7 percent of white students were suspended that year.

This remains true in Orange County, where Latino and black students tend to be suspended disproportionate to their share of the student body.


LOS ANGELES TO PAY $750,000 TO A WOMAN ALLEGEDLY RAPED BY AN LAPD OFFICER

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $750,000 settlement with a woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted by an LAPD officer while his partner stood as lookout.

In February, the two veteran LAPD officers, James Christopher Nichols, 44, and Luis Gustavo Valenzuela, 43, were charged with raping four women repeatedly between 2008 and 2011. “They’ve disgraced this badge. They’ve disgraced their oaths of office,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said back in February.

Prosecutors say Valenzuela and Nichols used threats of arrest to coerce their victims into compliance. Two other women allegedly raped by the Valenzuela and Nichols have also sued the city, and are each seeking more than $3 million in damages.

The two officers face life in prison, if convicted.

The LA Times’ Emily Alpert Reyes has the story. Here’s a clip:

Valenzuela and Nichols were placed on unpaid leave more than two years ago, after a halting internal investigation that was first launched when one of the women stepped forward. Criminal charges were eventually filed after an elite investigative unit took over the case.

The woman who brought the lawsuit said that in September 2009, Valenzuela and Nichols ordered her into their car as she was walking her dog, then drove the car to a secluded location where Valenzuela sexually assaulted her while Nichols kept a lookout in the front seat.

In the lawsuit, the woman said she later recounted her story to detectives after being arrested and brought to the Hollywood station five years ago. Police repeatedly told her not to hire a lawyer and urged her to be patient, according to her complaint.

The lawsuit alleges the city strung her along “to keep her quiet and avoid getting sued.” The woman hired a lawyer after reading about other lawsuits against the officers, her suit says.

The city agreed two years ago to pay $575,000 to settle one of those other cases, brought by another woman who accused the men of threatening her with jail unless she had sex with them.

Los Angeles faces additional legal challenges tied to the allegations against Nichols and Valenzuela. Two other women recently sued the city over alleged assaults by the officers, each asking more than $3 million in damages.

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Planned Parenthood Sues on Behalf of Foster Kids…Gov. Brown’s Justice Reform Initiative Blocked…Bill to Kill Cash Bail…and CA Child Welfare’s New Ombudsman

February 25th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

PLANNED PARENTHOOD LAWSUIT SEZ PROMESA GROUP HOMES VIOLATE FOSTER TEENS’ REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

Planned Parenthood is suing a chain of Fresno group homes for allegedly punishing female foster children in its care for receiving reproductive health care and obtaining contraceptives. The government-funded Promesa Behavioral Health group homes force the young girls to allow a staff member to watch their ob-gyn exams and to sign away their medical privacy rights. Group home staff members take away privileges (like watching TV, listening to music, and receiving visits with family members) if the girls are found in violation of Promesa’s abstinence policy by having condoms, getting the Depo-Provera contraceptive shot, or showing any other signs of sexual contact.

Promesa has seven group homes in Fresno County, and received a whopping $4.7 million in government funding in 2014.

In the suit filed by Planned Parenthood and three 18-year-olds under Promesa’s care, the reproductive health care provider calls Promesa’s practices “all the more harmful because youth in foster care have a particularly compelling need for access to contraception and regular reproductive health care.”

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.

One of the plaintiffs says that when Promesa staff found out that she was pregnant at 17, the group home barred her from visits with her mother and first child, and pressured her to get an abortion. She says Promesa staff punished her for refusing the abortion by blocking her from visits with her second child after she gave birth.

Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit seeks an injunction banning Promesa from confiscating contraceptives, forbidding foster youth from seeking reproductive health services, and punishing girls who do not comply with the unlawful policies.

Courthouse News Service’s Elizabeth Warmerdam has the story. Here’s a clip:

Plaintiff L.B. says: “When (she) went to gynecological appointments, Promesa group home staff insisted on staying in the exam room with her, and listening to her entire conversation with the medical provider.”

She says she was punished with restrictions for what she told the medical provider, and that Promesa staff confiscated condoms from her three times while searching her room and told her “she would get in trouble if she had them or had any reason to use them.”

Plaintiff A.Z. says a Promesa staff member insisted on accompanying her into her ob-gyn exam last year, and when A.Z. requested a Depo-Provera contraceptive shot, “the group home staff member told her that she was not allowed to have the shot.”

The complaint continues: “The staff member explained that she did not need the shot because she was not allowed to have sexual contact while living at the group home. The staff member told her that if she did have the shot, she would be punished and get an ‘R.’ A.Z. decided to get the Depo-Provera shot that day anyway. When she told Promesa staff, the response was, ‘Just know you are getting an R.’

“Getting an ‘R’ means that a Promesa resident loses important ‘privileges’ at the group home, including leaving the house, watching television, or listening to music. Sometimes it results in an early bedtime or loss of visitation, including visits with family members.

“On a number of occasions, Promesa staff also tried to force AZ. to let her ob-gyn share confidential medical information with the group home staff. When A.Z. directed her doctor not to fill out forms disclosing to Promesa what happened during her ob-gyn appointment, Promesa staff threatened her with an R if she did not permit her doctor to complete the forms.”


JUDGE BLOCKS CA GOV. JERRY BROWN’S IMPORTANT CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BALLOT INITIATIVE

On Wednesday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang blocked Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed ballot initiative to give judges sole discretion (rather than prosecutors) over whether a child defendant is transferred to adult court, and increase inmates’ access to early release credits. (Read more about the initiative and its implications: here.) The ruling will likely delay the ballot measure until 2018.

The judge ruled in favor of the California District Attorneys Association [CDAA] and Sacramento County resident Anne Marie Schubert, whose lawsuit accused Brown of forgoing a necessary period of public review for one of the amendments, and “cut in line to the front, ahead of other initiatives”. The judge’s ruling blocks California Attorney General Kamala Harris from publishing Brown’s “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016” which would have allowed Brown to begin gathering signatures.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has more on the judge’s decision. Here’s a clip:

“The court finds that the attorney general abused her discretion,” Chang said, ruling that the amendments radically change the focus of the original initiative without allowing for necessary public comment.

“What the amendments did was the type of mischief the Legislature had in mind” when it required that amendments to ballot initiatives be related to the original initiative, the judge said.

Friday was the deadline for Harris to act, but Chang agreed with the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert after they sued over the ballot measure.

The ruling could delay signature-gathering for Brown’s initiative beyond this year and possibly push it to the 2018 ballot.

Chang’s ruling “makes it impossible” for proponents to put the initiative before voters this year, said attorney James Harrison, who argued on behalf of the original proponents who allowed Brown to alter their measure.


NEW PROPOSED LEGISLATION TO STAMP OUT THE USURIOUS CASH BAIL SYSTEM NATIONWIDE

US Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation Wednesday that would end the controversial use of money bail at the federal level, and block access to Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants for states that keep their money bail systems in place. (In 2012, California received the largest Byrne JAG sum: $32 million.)

The No More Money Bail Act of 2016 aims to reform a system which disproportionately affects the poor, and is a key contributor to overcrowding in jails and prisons. More than 60% of jail inmates nationwide are awaiting trial. Most cannot afford to post bail.

In a previous WLA bail-related post, we pointed to an excellent John Oliver segment on the horrors of the cash bail system.

“No one should ever be deprived of their liberty before trial because they are poor–especially when defendants who are alike in every other way are able to purchase their release by cutting a deal with a for-profit bail bondsman,” said executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, announcing the organization’s support of the legislation.

The Pretrial Justice Institute launched a campaign to do away with needless arrests and bookings, and replace money bail with risk-based detention. “Even three days in jail pretrial has been show to make low-level defendants more likely to reoffend,” said Fanno Burdeen.


FORMER FOSTER CHILD APPOINTED FIRST EVER CA FOSTER CARE OMBUDSMAN

The California Department of Social Services has appointed Rochelle Trochtenberg—a former foster youth whose story was featured in Karen de Sá’s powerful investigative series on the over-prescribing of psychiatric medication for foster kids—to be the state’s foster care ombudsman.

Diagnosed with a number of mental illnesses as a kid in an LA County group home, Trochtenberg was put on damaging cocktails of psychiatric medications, some of which included lithium, Depakote, Zyprexa, Haldol and Prozac.

After aging out of the foster care system and leaving the psychotropic drug fog behind, she became a major child welfare advocate, serving on the state’s Child Welfare Council and a group working to end the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California foster kids.

Thirty-three-year-old Trochtenberg is the first former foster child to hold the position in California (and possibly the nation). As ombudsman, she will head an office that looks into complaints and child welfare system failures.

Here’s a clip from de Sá’s story for San Jose Mercury News:

“It’s a pleasure when you’re able to appoint the right person to the role at just the right time and Rochelle is that,” said Will Lightbourne, director of the California Department of Social Services. Lightbourne described Trochtenberg as a “balanced, thoughtful person” who will help tackle the ongoing overhaul of California’s residential group homes and a series of new laws designed to reduce the excessive use of psychiatric drugs in foster care. “I just have the greatest regard for her,” Lightbourne said.

For the past eight years, Trochtenberg has worked on foster care, juvenile justice, homelessness, LGBT rights and mental health issues for Humboldt County. She also holds a key leadership post on the statewide group working to reduce psychotropic drug use, and has served for years alongside judicial and political leaders on the state’s Child Welfare Council.

Growing up in the Los Angeles foster care system, Trochtenberg was diagnosed with a slew of mental illnesses and prescribed multiple overlapping drugs that caused serious health problems. Today, off medications and suffering from none of the illnesses she was told she had in foster care, she holds a master’s degree in social work and is poised to begin her four-year state post on March 28, with an $81,312 annual salary and a staff of 15.

Suddenly, Trochtenberg finds herself packing up to move from Eureka to Sacramento — a surprise twist in her life. “It’s given me this opportunity to pause and reflect,” she said. “If 10 years ago somebody said you’re going to be the foster care ombudswoman, I would have laughed in their face. I’m really just humbled by the opportunity.”

California is one of more than 20 states with similar ombudsman posts, but it was among the first, establishing the office in 1998 following a push by the advocacy group California Youth Connection. The office is responsible for educating foster youth about their rights and how to report violations. It also investigates and resolves individual complaints, summarizing them in reports to the Legislature.

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OVER-CRIMINALIZATION: Why Are LA’s Foster Kids More Likely to Be Charged With Crimes?

February 10th, 2016 by witnessla


THE OVER-CRIMINALIZATION OF LA’S FOSTER CHILDREN

by Carrie Wang and Rachel Kohn

Monserrat Zarza was 15-years-old when she was assigned to a group home six months after entering the Los Angeles County foster care system. Group homes provide a placement option for hard-to-place children “with significant emotional or behavioral problems,” according to the state of California.

Being in an environment with several dozen other troubled kids was not what Zarza expected when she gathered the courage to pick up her phone and ask for help after a decade of physical and emotional abuse by her mother. She was hoping for a real family home. The idea of a group home scared her.

When Zarza first entered the system, she did live with a foster family for six months. During that period, Zarza’s biological mother told her that she wanted to commit suicide because of the investigation and scrutiny that Zarza had put her through. In reaction to her mother’s accusations and threats, Zarza said she began to abuse drugs to cope with all the trauma and stress she was feeling. That’s why she was discharged from her foster family and reassigned to the Penny Lane Group Home in North Hills, California, after social workers told her they could not find her another foster home.

Now 20, Zarza has tried to make the most of her life since leaving her mother. At Penny Lane, she enrolled in a program to sober up. She said she believed in the system — until one day the group home staff caught her roommate using drugs and called the police. Zarza stood and watched as police officers arrested her friend. She never saw the girl again.


ARRESTS AS BEHAVIOR CONTROL

The use of arrests to control the behavior of foster youth is reportedly an all-too-common practice in many group homes. Denise C. Herz, associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles, has analyzed data on crossover youth in Los Angeles County since 2007. (Crossover youth is a term for children who are victims of abuse or neglect who also enter the juvenile justice system.)

In her most recent report, released in May 2015, Herz found that 32 percent of the foster youth who were arrested were living in group homes. She also found in the 15-month study that African-American kids were greatly overrepresented among the crossover kids. Plus 36.6 percent of the crossover population were girls, as opposed to 20 percent in the general juvenile justice population.

Zarza said Herz’s study matched her experience. “When we had a problem, they [the staff in the group home] were supposed to help us get better.” Instead, when it came to her friend, she said, “they just threw the cops at her the first time they caught her using. They should have reached out to her drug counselor first. They should have confiscated the drugs and figured out another way instead of calling the police.”

Juvenile public defender Maureen Pacheco, who has been working with the juvenile justice system for 37 years, agreed that social workers in group homes tend to report youth too easily.

“Social workers see the delinquency court having this power to detain kids. It’s almost like a mother turning to a father and saying, ‘Punish him,’” Pacheco said. “So they look at the delinquency system as having the power to control these kids. And the control is they get locked up. They think of that as a traditional method of disciplining the kids.”

As an example, Pacheco pointed to a client whom we’ll call Robert to protect his anonymity. Robert lived in a large group home for seven years, she said, dealing with such problems as being adopted and unadopted multiple times. Recently, after tracking down his birth mother, Robert and his sister escaped from their group home to meet her. The experience has unleashed a flood of emotional issues for him.

Once during lunch, during an argument with a social worker, he mouthed off angrily, saying “I’m going to kill you” as he had a wrench in his hand. The social worker called the police, and Robert was put on probation for 17 months, and is still on probation today.

Pacheco said the boy had never been known to be violent, but had often expressed his distress using empty threats. “To me that means this is a kid who is expressing his anger, but he is not somebody who is going to be a danger,” she said. “But because they [the group home staff] have liability for other people in the group home, they almost have to overreact in order to not have a situation where other kids get hurt. It is very discouraging because the liability has become their number one concern, not the well-being of the kids,” she said.

“With my two teenage sons, there were times when they would say horrible things to each other and make threats to each other. In a private home you are not likely to say, ‘I am going to call the police and have you arrested.’ You realize it is normal teenager behavior,” said Pacheco.


‘THE SYSTEM DOESN’T PARENT’

Attorney Barbara Duey agrees with Pacheco. Duey, who is an attorney and crossover director for the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, said that because social workers often do not have the patience, time or training to adequately assess a kid’s emotional reaction in a high-stress situation, their first response is to pick up the phone and call the police when kids act out, as kids often do.

“The system doesn’t parent, the system just reacts,” she said.

“When I was growing up at home with my sister, we shared a bathroom. We got in fights all the time. If I picked up my hairbrush and threw it at her, and shattered the glass, I’m going to get grounded by my parents,” she said. “However, our kids get arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and vandalism if that same thing happens in a group home setting.”

According to Duey, the overreaction continues after police are called. When a foster youth is arrested while in the group home system, the offense with which he or she is charged is likely to be more serious than if the child is arrested outside the system. For example, the hairbrush toss could be categorized as assault with a deadly weapon. The youth in question would be taken to juvenile hall and the case would go to the District Attorney’s office.

“The next thing you know, they are in court facing felonies. It happens all the time,” Duey said.


SOCIAL WORKERS AREN’T FAMILY

One of the problems contributing to the overcriminalization of foster children, experts say, is the fact that social workers often have high caseloads and thus do not make good parents.

Zarza was rushed into a group home because her social worker was going to leave town in a week. The social worker promised Zarza she would only stay in the group home for at most three months, after which she would find Zarza another foster home.

“I was really scared at the beginning. I thought something bad was going to happen to me and I kept waiting for her to come back.” But the social worker did not return. “I ended up staying there for 1½ years,” Zarza said.

When the social workers in her group home were overwhelmed, they would often take out their frustration on her and other girls, according to Zarza.

One time, she said, when she asked one social worker for keys to open a closet of clean clothes because she planned to take a shower, the worker asked her to wait. When Zarza came back to ask a third time, the worker told her that she was a “failure.” That’s why Zarza was in a group home, the social worker said, and that was why she would be a loser for the rest of her life like all the other girls.

“I was really hurt because I wasn’t expecting to get insulted like that when I simply asked to get my belongings to take a shower,” Zarza said.

The Los Angeles Department of Family and Children’s Services is short on foster families, so when a family cannot be found for a child, many reportedly wind up in situations similar to Zarza’s.

Judge Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court who was recently appointed director of Los Angeles County’s new Office of Child Protection, said the group home is the least preferred placement for children and youths because it is an unnatural setting.

“We see that kids in group homes cross over from child welfare to juvenile justice at a higher rate. We see that kids in group homes have lower education outcomes. We see that a higher number of the kids in group homes are receiving psychiatric medication,” he said.

According to Zarza, when she was in a group home, there were only four social workers in charge of 45 girls. The girls had no privacy and were only allowed to close their dorm doors for five minutes when they were changing. Some girls used this time as an excuse to pick fights. Zarza never adjusted to this living situation.

“I could never live a normal life like any other kid in my age,” she said.

Zarza had no one to turn to when she had problems within the group home. For over a year she and her friends filed grievance complaints but never heard back from anyone.

“It’s not like somebody’s there in your corner as your advocate like a parent would be,” Pacheco said.


‘WE ARE FAILING THEM’

The situation Zarza described is not an individual occurrence; it is a problem with the system, according to Pacheco.

“The delinquency system is treated as a dumping ground by the foster care system,” she said. “Social workers use the juvenile justice system when they are frustrated by kids’ noncompliance with the plan. They see the juvenile system as a place where they can lock the kid up. It is a tremendous problem.

“We are failing them,” Pacheco said.

Youth advocates hope that California’s Assembly Bill 403, passed last year, will help ensure that foster youths like Zarza are placed in a healthy living environment. The legislation, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, will replace group homes with short-term residential facilities designed to provide temporary support to kids with identified needs before returning them to a “family setting.”

During his time leading the Los Angeles Juvenile Court and as supervising judge of the Juvenile Dependency Court, Judge Nash wanted to find a way to ensure that the foster care system accurately focused on kids’ individual needs and that youths were not placed into group homes as a last resort. So he and his colleagues implemented a protocol in 2014 to improve the group home system.

“It [the protocol] says every time the agency wants to place a child in a group home, we need to get a report that tells us why a group home and why this group home,” said Nash. “What’s the specific case plan for the child in this group home? How long is it contemplated that this child will be in this group home?”

Nash admits it will take a while to see solid results from AB 403 and his group home protocol, but he is confident that both will ultimately help foster youths.

Pacheco said she would also like to see some revisions in the role of social workers who help and care for foster youths.

“Having a mentor who understands the system and helps them navigate the system” is important, she said. “Nobody is acting as a parent for the kids so having somebody who can at least advocate for them would be helpful.”

Zarza too is trying to make changes in the system. With this goal in mind, she has joined California Youth Connection to be an advocate for foster youths. She will age out of the system in a year, at 21, and said she wants to do all she can so that other youths in the system won’t experience the same pain she went through.

“I just want my past be my past, my present be present, and my future be different,” Zarza said.


This story is the first in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.


The photos of Monserrat Zarza are courtesy of her personal collection.

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

January 22nd, 2016 by Taylor Walker

REPORT LOOKS AT CHALLENGES FACED BY FOSTER KIDS WHO ARE PREGNANT OR PARENTS

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.


US SENATE APPROVES $35 MILLION TO HOUSE LA’S HOMELESS VETERANS

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.

[SNIP]

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.


ACTING CLASS IN LANCASTER PRISON GIVES INMATES NEW HOPE, JOB SKILLS, AND AN OUTLET

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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