Los Angeles: The State Threatens a Takeover

As of 1989, Los Angeles County had paid $18 million in settlements to children who had been abused while in its custody. One such case involved a nine-year-old boy who weighed only 28 lbs., and who could hardly speak after the suicides of his parents. County social workers failed to visit him in his foster home for four months. During that time, he was beaten, sodomized, burned on his genitals, and nearly drowned by his foster parents. He became a spastic paraplegic. By 1990, the state was threatening to take over Los Angeles County's child welfare system (Hornblower, 1995). Change was fueled by a scandal that forced the agency to relinquish control of foster care licensing to the state. A state investigation had uncovered one foster care home in which 10 children were sleeping on the floor of a garage, with 10 more-some of them abused-in one room upstairs. Another home licensed for four children had 20 infants in 10 cribs. (Little Hoover Commission, 1992). The agency's director was forced out of office, and Peter Digre took the helm as a reformer (Nazario, 1993).

In Los Angeles County, 26,947 children entered the foster care system for the first time in 1995, according to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury (1997). Did these children all arrive from abusive or neglectful households? Just as in New York, many could safely have been left in their own homes according to the testimony of department head Digre, who, under questioning by a Congressional subcommittee, admitted to legislators that about half of the removals of children from their homes in his system are due to poverty, and not abuse or neglect. "It gets down to those very specific issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care, and things like that," he explained, adding that "about half of the families are not physical abusers, not sexual abusers, not people with propensities to violence, but simply people who are struggling to keep ends pulled together and are eminently salvageable." All of this was too much for a frustrated Congressman Herger, who replied: "Evidently, it is your department's practice to remove children from families in about 50% of the cases because they don't have enough money" (Committee on Ways and Means, 1993a).

A budget of nearly one quarter of a billion dollars is expended annually on group home and foster care services in Los Angeles County, notes the Grand Jury, and group homes have become a veritable growth industry under Digre's command, jumping more than 250% between 1990 and 1995-fve times the rate of the rest of California. Digre points the finger of blame at cutbacks in AFDC benefits as responsible for the increase in foster care placements under his command, having explained to reporters: "Families get caught in a downward spiral: first their utilities are cut off so they can't keep the baby bottles cold. Then they get behind in rent and move in with friend or relatives who may have a criminal history" (Hornblower). While Digre has always been quick to blame cutbacks in funding for these increases, the Grand Jury points out that "the foster care caseload has been steadily increasing since 1990, two years before the first maximum aid payment reduction."

The Grand Jury points out that the plight of children is often none the better in state care, as they are often denied basic necessities-the lack of which ostensibly led to their placement to begin with. About half of the group homes the Grand Jury visited had no reference books, educational toys, or games. About half the homes had furniture with missing drawers, stains on the carpets, walls with holes, and bathrooms without toilet paper. One site didn't even provide toothpaste to the children.

The Grand Jury also found that children were inappropriately being sedated with psychotropic medications; children were denied promised rewards for good behavior based on a point system; when group home owners did not want to provide transportation for after school activities, they simply refused to let the child participate; many group homes did not provide tutoring, yet punished the children when they got poor grades. Moreover, many of the group homes visited provided a physically abusive environment. The Grand Jury explains that "some group home owners use inappropriate discipline measures such as dragging children across the floor, throwing shoes at them, slapping or hitting a child; others make children stand in a corner for hours at a time."

The Grand Jury determined that money is "not expended in accordance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations." Audits displayed "significant financial abuses and illegal and inappropriate uses of foster care funds in many of the homes audited." Even if the cost in terms of human misery is to be set aside, this does not make sense when analyzed from a purely fiscal standpoint, for rather than assist a family with a rent voucher or utility deposit, the cost of which may be as little as a few hundred dollars, the department will spend between $8,000 to $10,000 per month to shelter one child at MacLaren Children's Center. Rather than assist with housing or day care, it will spend a quarter of a billion dollars to house poor children in dangerous foster homes, and in the county's 700 group homes.

Providing meaningful oversight over a department which so relentlessly removes so many children from their homes is impossible. An investigation conducted by the California State Auditor (1996) reveals that the Los Angeles juvenile court follows the recommendations of DCFS in 98% of the cases it hears-effectively acting as a rubber-stamp for the department. Even if the rare brave judge were inclined to provide some closer scrutiny to the department's claims, it would be impossible, as the cumulative caseload of the Los Angeles juvenile court consisted of 153,700 hearings in 1995, and 96,100 hearings during the first seven weeks of 1996.

Agency policies are often driven by political winds, and Los Angeles provides no exception to the rule. Apparently unsatisfied with the number of children being removed from their homes, the Los Angeles County Board of Commissioners called Digre on the carpet in 1998 demanding that more be taken. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich led the charge by raising a motion, which was unanimously approved. This motion stated that the county should come down hard on parents who abuse substances by taking away their children. The motion instructed a task force "to develop recommendations that place child safety paramount above all other issues relating to addicted families." The motion stated, in part: "If [parents] choose drugs, they will lose their child. Drug-addicted parents waive their right to keep their children." When asked to elaborate, Antonovich said he believes substance-abusing parents should be given one chance to get sober, and if they fail, they should have their children permanently removed. The board did not address the issue of how to provide services to those drug- and alcohol-addicted parents who comprise an estimated 15% of the county's population (Nazario, 1998).


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