Foster Care

A new report and a remarkable new radio series point to deeply troubling issues inside LA County’s foster care system

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

A new report, shows that 72 percent of all Black children in the County of Los Angles will live through a child abuse investigation before they reach 18-years-old.

For decades, youth advocates have been flagging the family-fracturing racial disproportionality in the nation’s foster care systems.  But, even given what we already know, these new figures are startling.

Seventy-two percent.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that all those allegations will be substantiated, but it does mean LA’s Department of Children and Family Services shows up at the family’s door, which is trauma producing for any family.  And for any kid.

In early 2017, child welfare expert, Richard Wexler, wrote that, due to a staggeringly racist child welfare system, “enduring a child abuse investigation is the new normal for Black children.”

Wexler, who is the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, and also a contributor to WitnessLA, was basing his 2017 statement, on a then new report published  early that year by the American Journal of Public Health.

The 2017 report used the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Child Files along with Census data to estimate the cumulative prevalence of reported (but not necessarily verified) childhood maltreatment that would have triggered an investigation in order to chart how many U.S. kids will experience such a child welfare probe at some time in their childhoods.

The study estimated that the odds were the worst for the nation’s Black kids, a staggering 53 percent of whom, the study’s authors wrote, were likely to be subjected to a child abuse investigation before they became legal adults.

Now, four years later, the new report — authored by two researchers from Duke University and two from Rutgers, and published by the National Academy of Science — produced findings that are even more alarming, when the foursome analyzed newer foster care data from the nation’s 20 largest counties.

The study’s conclusions produced a picture of what Wexler describes as “a monstrous machine inflicting state-sanctioned emotional child abuse on a huge proportion of nonwhite children.”

Among the report’s most painful findings were those from Los Angeles County mentioned above.

Furthermore, as bad as the data are, they point beyond themselves to potential worse numbers.

“Neither this, nor the previous studies, provides data specific to income,” said Wexler of the findings. Yet, with the “widespread tendency to confuse poverty with neglect,” wrote Wexler in a blogpost on the topic,  this means “we’re talking almost exclusively about impoverished families.”

But that’s not all.

Unsafe in Foster Care

In the same week that the new report published by the PNAS came to our attention, Latino USA released a searing two-part investigative series called, Unsafe in Foster Care.

The series, by journalist Deepa Fernandes, is a remarkable feat of reporting, and it also paints a deeply disturbing picture.

In the two part investigation, Fernandez probes LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the largest child welfare agency in the nation, and finds out what happens when the sprawling system that is meant to protect LA County’s children “falls short—and even puts their lives at risk.”

The foster care case that Deepa Fernandez, and Latino USA producer, Victoria Estrada, looked at first was that of Leah Garcia, who was struggling with domestic violence, and so she called the police.

The decision to call for help,  brought in DCFS, which in turn caused social workers to remove both her  3-year-old daughter, who went with a family member, and her 5-month-old baby, Joseph Chacón, the son of the abusive partner, who was placed with a foster family.

(For more on the issue of domestic violence survivors being harmed not helped when DCFS walks through the door, especially when it comes to non-white parents/survivors, read this important WLA column by lawyer Chris Martin who directs the legal team for Black Lives Matter-LA and co-leads the group #reimaginechildsafety.)

In any case, after Joseph was removed from Leah Garcia’s care by county authorities, we hear how the little boy was put in a foster home where Garcia began noticing what she regarded as worrying red flags during her visits with her son.

When baby Joseph wound up in the hospital with a broken arm, DCFS stepped in and put him in a second foster home.

In home number two,  the very worst thing that could happen — happened.  The five-month old died under extremely disquieting circumstances in the care of foster mother two.

In part two of the series,  the picture — impossibly —  gets even worse when reporter Fernandes finds “something shocking buried in the autopsy records” for Joseph:  Another baby, a little boy named Draco Ford, had died two months earlier in the same foster home.

There’s much more to this important, painful, and deeply investigated story, so listen.

In the meantime, WitnessLA will continued to track the critical issues that the report and the new series have forced into the light.