On Tuesday of last week, the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf reported that many more kids were dying when being observed by LA’s foster care system than anyone was admitting.
The stories and the figures were indeed horrifying:
More children have died in each of the last two years from abuse or neglect after being under the eye of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services despite assurances by county officials that the problem was getting better, according to confidential county documents reviewed by The Times.
The number of deaths from abuse and neglect rose from 18 in 2008 to 26 in 2009, and 2010 so far is on track to be even worse, with 21 maltreatment fatalities in the first eight months of the year, according to the figures. The department publicly released some of the case files of child deaths Monday morning after repeated inquiries from The Times but has not yet released the overall statistics, which have been circulating among senior county officials.
At the same time, the Daily News wrote a somewhat calmer article about what the new figures meant.
Then on Friday, LA County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Mike Antonovich wrote a joint op-ed in the LA Times in which they cautioned that the Times’ reporting took stats out of context and thus ran the danger of wrongly causing a panic that would result in more kids being yanked unnecessarily and harmfully from their families (a worry that several foster care activists have privately shared with me—and anyone else they think will listen).
Here’s a clip from the op ed:
Last year, according to the DCFS, 55 children who had department case histories were homicide victims. That fact alone evokes for many an image of an infant or toddler killed in an abusive home, when the DCFS should have spotted danger.
But “children” includes those up to 18 years old. A closer look at the 55 homicides shows that 35 were of teenagers shot or stabbed to death in assaults, many in gang-related incidents. Three youths were shot by police officers.
The label “DCFS history” applies to any child who has been the subject of an abuse complaint; the history remains with the child even if the complaint was found to be false. These children in most cases were not young children, and few were still under the care of the DCFS.
The number of children killed by parents, foster parents or relatives acting as guardians have been effectively constant since the 1990s. These figures have been overlooked.
Therolf laid part of the problem at the feet of a comparatively new program called the Title IV-E Waiver, under which LA County agreed to cap the sum of funds it can receive for foster care services, no matter how many kids it takes into its care. The “waiver” as it is called, was part of a series of reforms put in place in the last decade, this one aimed at fixing the previous system that in essence fiscally incentivized the county to take kids away from their families—because the more kids taken away, the more bucks the county received.
As predicted, the capped funds waiver system has gotten the Department of Family and Children Services to take fewer kids out of their homes. Instead, DCFS has pushed to help the kids and their families toward health and safety without removal—thus allowing the children to remain in place, but still under county supervision.
The Times suggests that more child deaths have resulted.
Certainly all parties agree that one child death is one horrific tragedy too many. At the same time, the push to put hundreds more kids through the trauma of being torn from families, when many of those families could reasonably be helped—all in response to a panic driven by numbers around which there is questionable agreement—is something that surely all of us would wish to avoid as well.
We have a habit in this state of creating awful public policy out of individual horror stories. And much collateral damage results.
Please let’s not do it here.
PS: The state of Florida has used the waiver to improve it’s system, not impair it (in the face of similar criticism).
Source of above numbers: Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Abuse and Neglect