EDITOR’S NOTE: This story by Daniel Heimpel about a former foster child named Heather Matheson, is the first of a series of stories exploring the good and the harm done by a strategy called out-of-county placement that is used by the various county agencies in California’s foster care system. The story was co-produced by WitnessLA & the Chronicle of Social Change, of which Heimpel is the founder and executive director.
OUT OF COUNTY, CA: THE PROBLEMS WITH GOING THE DISTANCE
What is the cost/benefit ratio of putting foster children—who have already lost so much—into “out-of-county” placement?
by Daniel Heimpel
Heather, slight and precocious, made her Los Angeles County high school’s track team as a freshman.
It was a major feat, something to be proud of in the maelstrom of the 14 year-old’s life. Only months before, the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had removed Heather from her home after a harrowing week of physical abuse and domestic violence.
After 15 months in what had been a promising foster-care placement near Taft High School, set in a pleasant part of the San Fernando Valley, things had started to fall apart. The department decided to move her in with relatives in neighboring Ventura County.
The only problem, one that seemed deceptively small in the context of her painful family history, was that she now had to take three buses to get to school, the only real support system she had left.
“Looking back on it,” Heather says, “it was this short period of time, but it was really stressful. It was a stressful year of life. I could have been going to school dances and football games, but I didn’t because the buses don’t run that late.”
In 2009, when Heather was put into what is called an out-of-county placement, California’s feudal foster care system was larger than it is today, with roughly 70,000 kids in the state’s care who had been removed from their parent’s custody and then placed with foster parents, in group homes or with extended family.
Yet, what hasn’t changed in the eight years since Heather began her foster care odyssey is the fact that 1 in 5 California foster youth will find themselves taken away from the county where they lived and placed in another county. At present, a total of 12,626—or 20 percent of all California children and youth in a foster care placement—live in a different county than the one that they previously called home.
The reasons why foster children and youth are forced to cross county lines so often boils down to conflicting goals within the system, simple geography, and the push and pull of housing costs.
One way to understand the out-of-county issue is to look at the different types of placements to which children are sent. In April, the Center for Social Services Research (CSSR) at the University of California, Berkeley, drawing data from California’s 58 counties, reported that there were 62,915 children in foster care, a number that has been steadily rising since a low point of around 55,000 in 2011. The main placement types for children are with kin, in privately run foster family agencies (FFA), in county-run foster homes and, finally, in group homes, which generally get the older and harder-to-place youth.
Data pulled from CSSR’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project shows that in 2015, 21 percent of kin (such as extended family members), 24 percent of FFA, 5 percent of county foster care and a whopping 36 percent of group home placements were out-of-county.
When it comes to kin—-the preferable foster care placement according to many child welfare leaders-—the reason why 21 percent of kids cross county borders has a lot to do with simple geography. If you live in L.A. County, but your aunt and uncle live in Ventura County, as was true for Heather, you’ll be placed in Ventura County since, all things being equal, that’s a better solution than asking you to live with strangers in L.A.
For children in FFA placements, the movement is, in part, due to the fact that privately run foster family agencies often span more than one county, and some of those counties do a better job at recruiting foster parents than others. So if the agency can’t find a child a foster home out of their list in one county, they’ll bounce them to a neighboring county.
When it comes to group homes, the cost of doing business is cheaper in suburban and exurban areas than the city centers where many high-needs youth come from. In addition, political pressure to reduce reliance on group homes has been felt most by the urban counties where anti-group home sentiment has taken deepest root. This means that in counties like Alameda and San Francisco, some group homes have been shuttered. As a result, the only place to send the kids who need to be in these higher-level placements is out of county.
The implications for children’s lives can range from the good, where foster youth are placed with family members who welcome and care about them, to the bad, where contact and eventual reunification with biological parents becomes strained by distance, and access to critical mental health services, and other services that the child needs, is often delayed or degraded, if ever delivered.
Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance for Children and Family Services, sympathizes with the limited choices court officers and caseworkers often have to work with when placing foster kids.
“They have to make these kinds of Solomonic decisions all the time, and they have to do it at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday,” Schroeder said.
Heather’s case fell into the part good, part bad category.
Her journey began on March 5, 2007. That was the day that DCFS took the 13 year-old from her parents.
The official status review report submitted six months later to the county’s juvenile dependency court described the details of the situation. On that day, “and on numerous prior occasions, the child Heather Matheson’s mother, [redacted], and father, [redacted], have engaged in violent altercations in the presence of the child including father chasing mother in his vehicle… Additionally, father got the child involved in the parent’s arguments by requiring the child to call the mother on father’s behalf.”
What the report neglects to describe is the run-up to her removal. A week before Heather’s father chased her mother in the car, Heather showed up to John A. Sutter Middle School in Winnetka with bruises on her arms, prompting her teacher, who was also her track coach, to report child abuse to DCFS. When a social worker showed up at her parents’ door to investigate, Heather says she was too scared to say anything in front of her father, whom she remembers as being “short fused.”
After the social workers left, Heather’s father flew into a rage. Her mother, who was planning to move to Idaho with a new man, was not at the house.
“He wanted her to come over,” Heather says.
The girl’s father had a gun in his hand, and told Heather to call her mother.
“When I made a big deal that I didn’t want to do that, he hit me with the gun,” Heather says.
The blow knocked the 90-lb. 13 year old unconscious. When Heather came to, she made the call.
“I said, ‘I am scared, Dad has a gun and I don’t want to be there,’” Heather recalls saying.
But she got no help from her mom.
“If you want to live with him, you have to learn how to deal with him. It’s not my problem,” Heather recalls her mother saying.
Heather’s father then forced her into the car, leaving the gun on the dashboard. As he drove wildly from street to street looking for his wife at every motel he could find, Heather remembers watching the gun slide back and forth in front of her.
When the DCFS investigator who had visited Heather’s home days before showed up at school the next day for a scheduled interview with Heather, the frightened girl told the social worker the whole story. After hearing her out, the investigator told Heather she would have to take her to an emergency shelter. At this point Heather’s teacher, who was also in the room, broke in.
“I don’t want her to end up with strangers,” Heather recalls the woman saying. “My husband and I can take her in.”
Despite the teacher’s initial good will, the placement would not last.