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Foster Care


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.

Posted in Foster Care | 7 Comments »

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

December 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

THE IMPORTANCE OF INCLUDING TEEN PREGNANCY PREVENTION STRATEGIES IN THE TOOLBOX FOR PREVENTING ABUSE AND NEGLECT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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


A UNIQUE VOTER-APPROVED TAX TO BOOST PUBLIC SAFETY IN OAKLAND MEANS MILLIONS IN FUNDING FOR INNOVATIVE RESTORATIVE JUSTICE AND VIOLENCE PREVENTION EFFORTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE CRIME REPORT SURVEY: READERS’ TOP TEN STORIES OF 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


JUDGE OVERTURNS DEATH SENTENCE, SAYS PROSECUTOR CAN’T TELL DELIBERATING JURY THAT THE BIBLE SAYS MURDERERS MUST BE PUT TO DEATH

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

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

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

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

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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

December 7th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


LA’S FAMOUSLY REFORM-MINDED JUVENILE JUDGE TAKES ON FOSTER CARE 

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

by Gary Cohn


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

The latter oversees the fate of Los Angeles foster children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



THE NATURE OF THE TASK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



TO REMOVE OR NOT TO REMOVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BORROWING GOOD IDEAS

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

Nash: Apparently it’s a problem, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Cohn: Can you explain how it works?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CROSSOVER KIDS, GROUP HOMES & OTHER HIGH PRIORITIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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