By Holden Slattery
This month, Los Angeles County is rolling out a new approach to the longstanding issue of how to find homes for its most difficult to place foster youth.
These are youth with a high level of mental health needs and behavioral issues who often cycle through multiple foster care placements and sometimes end up on the street. As a result, they often end up spending months living at transitional shelters such as two cottages run by David and Margaret Youth and Family Services in La Verne.
“Most of the kids we’ve got – they’ve been everywhere and nobody wants them because they’re so difficult,” said Charles Rich, the executive director at David and Margaret.
Now, as the state embarks on reforms to its group home placements, about 20 youth at David and Margaret will be part of an effort to find stability for a group that often struggles to find housing.
Los Angeles County has set up a 90-day pilot program to bolster placement efforts by bringing youth and their caseworkers to child dependency court where a judge will oversee the placement process.
The program, which began Sept. 1, serves youth who overstay the allowed 72 hours at the David and Margaret, which has two cottages with a total of 16 beds that L.A. County contracts for temporary shelter.
This facility only houses girls, and it has received complaints from neighbors about girls running away and engaging in activities that constitute commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), said Michael Nash, who leads the county’s Office of Child Protection.
“They’re at high risk of CSEC involvement, they’re at high risk of homelessness, and they’re at high risk of getting involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” Nash said. “That’s why we want to make sure that they’re getting all of the efforts that they deserve.”
As California rolls out monumental reforms to its foster care system aimed at finding more family-based settings for youth in care, L.A. County’s pilot program has potential to help inform counties about how to place the youth who suffer from the highest level of instability and are the most vulnerable.
Now seven days after girls at David and Margaret overstay the 72-hour limit, they become participants in a new kind of team meeting called an “engagement and placement stabilization” (EPS) meeting. During these meetings, a large group of staff gathers to identify the youth’s strengths and needs and discuss how to find her a stable placement.
These meetings include a bevy of social workers and specialists, including three types of DCFS staff, an intensive mental health provider, the youth’s attorney and staff at the transitional shelter along with the youth and any person she requests to attend, according to a memorandum of understanding between DCFS and the court that lays out the details of the program.
A few days after that meeting, the girls visit the dependency court, where a judge monitors the progress being made toward finding a placement. Prior to the hearing, DCFS is required to report to the court on the daily efforts being made to place the youth, the issues discussed, recommendations made at the EPS meeting and any requested court orders.
About a week later, the girls will return to the court, and then they will return every 15 days until a placement is found, according to the memorandum.
Bringing youths and their caseworkers before a judge offers several advantages, Nash said. In addition to monitoring whether caseworkers are following up on their duty to find them suitable placements, judges can use their power to address the youths’ behavioral issues when necessary.
If a youth is making inappropriate use of a cell phone, as many have been doing, a judge has the power to confiscate that cell phone, Nash said.
“There’s always going to be a certain percentage of youth who are just difficult to deal with and they require a lot of individual care, and this process is designed to give them that,” Nash said.
The EPS meetings began in August, and the court hearings began this month.
So far, Maricruz Trevino, an administrator who runs DCFS’ transitional shelter care program, has already seen one of the EPS meetings result in a girl changing her mind about a proposed placement that she had been refusing, she said.
However, one of the problems early on has been getting the youth to participate in the meetings and hearings, said Maire Mullaly, an attorney liaison with the Children’s Law Center. Some of those meetings and hearings have been held without the youth present, she said.
“It’s a very difficult situation to try to connect and engage clients that are feeling so disengaged and that are not plugged into any programming,” Mullaly said, who has attended the EPS meetings.
Finding a way to engage with these youth is especially important right now, as child welfare reforms in the state reduce opportunities for them to stay in shelters and group homes.
Through a series of laws called Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), the state is trying to move more children out of group homes and into family settings. One of those laws, which counties across the state are getting ready to meet, is a requirement that counties limit the time that children spend in emergency shelters.
When CCR is fully implemented, group homes will become short-term residential therapeutic programs (STRTP) that only care for kids with high medical or mental health needs and do it on a temporary basis before assigning them to a family-based setting such as a therapeutic home that offers mental health services.
In addition to increasing the need for more Californians to register as foster parents, these laws create a need to find strategies to move kids into foster care placements more quickly.
“There’s the whole concept of time-limited because we all know that we want to go away from congregate care,” said Trevino. “However, it just appears, and I think everybody will agree that, in some way, there will always have to be some kind of facility to house children on an emergency basis.”
L.A. County has a chance to show whether team meetings and the power of the court can improve stability and permanency for difficult to place foster youth.
“There is no magic bullet,” said Nash. “There is no cookie-cutter approach for these kids, and so what we needed to do was have these teams work closely with these kids, let these kids know that our team going to stay with them, and also, that we’re going to work with any potential placement, be it a relative, a foster home or a group home, to hopefully create a more stable environment for them.”
Holden Slattery is the distribution and engagement manager for Fostering Media Connections and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change, where this story originally appeared.
Fostering Media Connections, which publishes the Chronicle for Social Change, is an independent, nonprofit journalism organization based in Los Angeles, it is dedicated to solution-based news coverage of child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues faced by vulnerable children.
Photo: A cottage used for transitional shelter care at David and Margaret Youth and Family Services in La Verne.