A “TRAGEDY WATING TO HAPPEN?”
Staff members say that LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services’ last resort center for kids, known as the Youth Welcome Center, is spinning out of control.
WitnessLA has obtained the video posted above that was recorded this past Saturday, August 8, and shows three DCFS youth brawling with several of the center’s security guards, as the guards try to contain the kids. Staffers and others close to the center told us that the brawl that was caught on video is far from unusual, and that some kind of event of this nature occurs multiple times a week.
“it’s a tragedy waiting to happen,” said a Youth Welcome Center staff member who has worked with LA’s foster kids for decades.
According to DCFS spokesman Armand Montiel, while there have been other incidents, they were comparatively minor, and that this particular brawl was far more extreme than usual. But on Tuesday there was “a follow-up incident with the same youth,” said Montiel. The youth, who may have instigated the fight, has now been arrested.
The video triggered action by LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who issued a statement Friday afternoon directing the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) “to immediately implement key safety measures and protocols to ensure the safety and security of both the youth and personnel at the Welcome Center.”
The center is in Solis’ district and its problems have reportedly been on her radar for some time. But the alarming nature of the video reportedly caused the supervisor to decide that emergency action was called for—hence the statement.
“On the heels of a recent altercation between security guards and youth at the center,” Solis wrote, DCFS Director Philip Browning must “immediately help find alternative placement for the most at-risk minors, by providing the appropriate mental health services to address any issues with social-emotional behavior.”
ONCE A 23-HOUR HOLDING FACILITY NOW OFTEN A DROP-IN WAY-STATION FOR KIDS WITH NOWHERE TO GO
For those unfamiliar, the Youth Welcome Center and the Children’s Welcome Center are both emergency way stations that are the only LA County foster care facilities that turn no one away. The Children’s Welcome Center (CWC) opened in 2012 for DCFS children under 12, including infants. The Youth Welcome Center (YWC), opened in May 2014, and serves foster kids from 12 to 17, plus the “aged out” foster youth who, according to a law passed in 2010, AB 12, are eligible for various kinds of extended services that are supposed to help them get on their feet and enter adulthood successfully.
(Prior to AB 12, vulnerable foster care teenagers were abruptly asked to fend for themselves when they turned 18. The outcomes, statistically, were not good. AB 12 came into being with the intention of changing all that.)
The two centers, which are housed on the campus of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, were designed essentially as holding stations for children and teenagers who are harder to place. The idea is that the kids would stay in a safe, welcoming, well-staffed environment while social workers found foster homes, or group homes, or extended family care where the youth can live longer term.
However, many of the kids whom the YWC serves cannot be placed easily. Some suffer from mental illness or severe emotional vulnerabilities. Some are on psychotropic medication, which they may or may not be taking. Others are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender kids who’ve been subject to abuse or extreme bullying. Still others are kids who have been sex-trafficked. Most have been tossed out of string of foster homes and/or group homes.
None of the kids are supposed to be in the YWC for more than 23 hours. But over the weekend, the 23-hour rule is relaxed or waved. And, in many cases, the kids check out within the 23 hour time frame, then check back in the next night. When the revolving door kids return to YWC, they may be high, they may be stressed. Sometimes some of he youngerthe girls–according to staff—come back with unexplained cash, and tales of “dates,” with men that on of the older girls set up.
“The longer the Youth Welcome Center has been open,” said DCFS spokesman Armand Montiel, “the more it has become a destination for youth who,” for one reason or another, “are choosing not to stay in placement.” They look at the YWC as a “waystaytion, a respite” from all they’re dealing with.
And therein lies the rub say, staff. While the YWC provides an essential service to some of LA County’s most fragile youth, its present organization is a recipe for trouble. A staffer who asked not to be named said that to throw together in one small facility, kids of both genders, who range in age from 12-years-old to 21-years-old, many of whom have such formidable vulnerabilities, where they can essentially come and go with few restrictions… “It’s asking for trouble.” she said.
“We have one bathroom that is considered the youth bathroom, and one shower,” the staff member said. “Imagine. We have anywhere from sixteen to twenty-three kids.” The staff has a system for bathroom use and basic grooming. But showers are difficult, except when there’s a special need.”
DCFS is aware of the issues and is looking for a solution, said Montiel. The release of the video “just intensified the conversation. it’s a vivid example of how things can go wrong. We need to be better prepared with ways to keep our youth safe and our staff safe.”
More on the YWC soon.