In response to my post about Sunday’s LA Times stories telling of the two adolescents who died in the care (if you can call it that) of LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services, Richard Wexler, the
Executive Director National Coalition for Child Protection Reform wrote me an email that was both informative and disturbing.
Wexler commented in particular on the case of Miguel Padilla, the boy who was bounced around from place to place after his mother abandoned him and his father neglected him. He was raised for a while by his elderly great grand mother, who until finally he hung himself in a stand of trees outside the group home where he was placed at the end. His body was not discovered for nine days—and only then, by accident. No one had bothered to search for the kid.
Here are the questions Wexler asked:
A little boy [Miguel] is placed with his great grandmother. There is no indication that she does not love the child, but every indication that she is too old to keep up with him, supervise him properly or get him help with mental health problems.
But why does the Los Angeles Times assume, in its story Sunday about such a boy, that the only alternative is to take him away and place him with strangers?
Why didn’t anyone think to ask if DCFS should have poured help IN to that home, instead of asking only why they didn’t take the boy out?
Apparently because the Times never asked anyone who would raise that option.
When Miguel Padilla first was placed, keeping him safely with his great-grandmother would have been relatively simple: An Intensive Family Preservation Services intervention to start with, followed by linking the great grandmother to less intensive help. Even without hindsight, the odds of Miguel succeeding, not to mention surviving, would have been far greater — and, it would have cost county taxpayers far less.
Now I don’t blame the LA Times reporters for asking those questions. Looking at the surface facts of the case, I too thought Miguel Padilla’s grandmother was too old and ill equipped to care for him. Ditto Lazhanae Harris, the 13-year-old girl whose terrible story the Times also told.
But Wexler insists that this is far from true, that if the parents are not abusive, intelligent family preservation is much, much cheaper and much more likely to have a good outcome, than dumping a kid into “the system,” as those whom I know who have had personal dealings with DCFS call foster care.
To illustrate, Wexler directed me to a video of a speech by one of his colleagues, Karl Dennis, a family preservation specialist who is also the visionary founder and longtime director of Kaleidoscope, a non-profit community-based childcare agency in Chicago.
Just a bit before the video’s halfway mark, Dennis tells a compelling about a kid who, like Miguel, had no place to go because his family couldn’t or wouldn’t take him. But Dennis and his group provided the wrap-around services necessary to return the kid to his very reluctant mother (again, for less money than a slot in the foster care system—and certainly less than incarcerating him, which was clearly where the kid was headed). It worked. According to Dennis, the difficult kid finished school and got a good paying job and now has a life.
According to Wexler, with any luck at all the same might have been true for Miguel and
Lazhanae —if the emphasis at DCFS was on family preservation.
It seems, unfortunately, that it is not. So, all too often it appears that the LA County agency that is supposed to rescue children from abuse and neglect, instead has systematized it.
Surely we can do better.