A new report released Monday by LA County’s Commission for Children and Families shows that the number of children showing up at the county’s two foster care intake centers—called Welcome Centers—has jumped “alarmingly,”
The report’s authors described a “need for action,” as they told of a 40% increase in population in the combined two centers, from January to June, with a 26% increase in the second quarter over the first quarter.
The authors were most concerned about the jump in number of infants and children 0-2, which rose by a startling 71% in the second quarter, and also about the “repeat entries of adolescents,” which increased 41% during that same period.
So why the worrisome rise in kids and infants entering the Welcome Centers (which are supposed to limit kids of any age to a 23-hour stay)?
The primary reason, according to the report, was “an insufficient number of suitable foster care placements for these children, leading to stays longer than 24 hours [at the welcome centers], or multiple returns.”
So what ought to be done?
The commission’s Ad Hoc committee members, which spent five months writing the report, have a list of urgent recommendations they hope the county will adopt. But to understand the problems—and possible solutions—that this report describes, it helps to know a little about how the Welcome Centers came into being.
WELCOME CENTERS: THE BACK STORY
When children are removed from their families because of concerns of abuse and/or neglect, and transferred into LA County’s care, there is often a brief lag time before the kids—be they infants, toddlers, grade schoolers, or teenagers—are placed with either a foster family or, in the case of some children with more complicated needs, into a specialized group home. During that lag time, these children who are entering the system (or in some instances being moved within the system, awaiting transfer from one placement to another) need to be somewhere that is safe and that, ideally, can also ease the traumatizing and often frightening transition they are making.
For more than a decade the county’s Department of Children and Family Services has been struggling to find the right short term environment where children and teenagers could stay during this lag-time. At the same time, DCFS was theoretically working to create a system that made sure that the gap period—between the moment of entering the system, and matching children with foster care placement—was as short as possible, hopefully no more than 24 hours.
In the years after the closing in 2003 of MacLaren Hall, the county’s scandal and abuse-plagued facility that was previously used to fill the gap, social workers were reduced to stashing kids wherever they could, in their offices, sometimes even in their cars.
Then in 2012, the county opened what they optimistically named The Children’s Welcome Center, as a 23-hour short term shelter for children from 0-11 years old. In 2014, the county opened the companion Youth Welcome Center to similarly serve the 12 to 21-year-old foster population.
Neither facility is licensed by the state, hence the 23 hour cutoff—which is now routinely exceeded, according to the report, especially in the case of the Youth Welcome Center, where kids exit the facility during the day then come back at night to start the 23-hour clocking ticking again.
The Youth Welcome Center, in particular, has become mired in controversy, with kids getting into brawls, staff complaining about not enough bathrooms for children’s needs and privacy, and about staffers’ concern that allowing emotionally vulnerable 12-year-olds to sleep in the same physical environment as traumatized and disaffected 17-to-21-year-olds is a recipe for disaster. (And then there is the matter of the persistent rumors about younger residents being recruited for sex trafficking by older residents at the center.)
The first line of defense, according to the report, is the most obvious: the county must “develop a plan for aggressive recruitment for foster families” for each of these groups of children.
In recruiting potential foster parents for infants and very young children, there are several things that stand in the way, including the fact that foster parents aren’t adequately reimbursed for costs like diapers, and that it’s difficult for working foster parents to get child care for their charges, and more. These and other barriers must be addressed, says the report.
(To be honest, it’s perplexing that such simple and obvious issues have not been addressed thus far, as DCFS continues to bemoan the lack of good foster parents.)
For the older children, the report recommends the creation of a pilot program that includes the formation of a small “multi-disciplinary/departmental entry-response team” that would include someone from each one of the relevant agencies, namely DCFS, the Department of Mental Health, the LA County office of Education (LACOE), the Department of Health services, and so on. This emergency team would meet with the foster child and his or her social worker, and also the kid’s family, within 24-48 hours, and form a plan for placement that includes staying on the case with the child until he or she is placed.
Wendy Smith—who is an Associate Dean at USC’s School of Social work, and one of the three commission members who authored Monday’s report—told us that, in addition to the emergency response team, there should be “a point person” who was in daily touch with foster care providers like emergency shelters and group homes, and thus would know what beds were available at the various facilities. “If you had someone who was in daily touch, that would make a big difference,” Smith said.
Indeed. So it would seem.
[Note: on the subject of group homes, please read about the closure of the extravagantly complaint-plagued Bayfront Youth and Family Services.
As for the Welcome Centers, the commission recommends phasing them out as soon as possible in favor of a decentralized system of emergency shelters that already exist throughout the county. The authors point out that a new state law will require a decentralized approach within three years anyway. The state also requires the Welcome Centers to make the changes necessary to get themselves licensed by the state, which will likely mean costly improvements—yet another reason, according to the commission, to go with regional emergency centers now.
Over the next three years, the report hopes for “the development of a best practice model for L.A. County, building on the existing network of 72-hour shelters.”
During that same time, the report proposes the launch of a new task force that could look at who was doing what elsewhere in the nation, in order to help design a “trauma-informed” system for LA that provides more than an emergency stop gap, but also helps “…children and youth who have experienced so much change and uncertainty, in addition to the maltreatment and violence that led to system involvement in the first place,” thereby “decreasing the negative effects of entry or re-entry into placement and increasing the likelihood of successful planning and placement.”
Sounds like the least we can do for the kids that we have taken into our care.
So who has to say yes for some of the commission’s suggested solutions to be instituted?
“I’m encouraged by the county’s response to some of these issues,” said Smith. But as to who actually has the power to trigger the change, the sources we talked to agreed that action by the Board of Supervisors could put everything in motion.
So, over to you, LA County Board of Supes. Thoughts?
P.S. CHRISTIE RENICK AT THE CHRONICLE OF SOCIAL CHANGE HAS A VERY GOOD STORY ON THE COMMISSION’S REPORT
So take a look at what she has to say here.