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Better-funded programs desperately needed in country’s largest foster care system

Better-funded programs desperately needed in country’s largest foster care system

Picture of ChrisAnna Mink

Earlier this summer, the Los Angeles Times reported that an expert panel called for the immediate closure of Los Angeles County’s Welcome Centers, facilities designed to hold children for 24 hours while they await foster care placement. The centers’ major flaw was overcrowding. There aren’t enough foster homes in the county, especially for children with medical or mental health needs, so they’re held in the Welcome Centers while they wait.

In Los Angeles County, nearly 28,000 children under the age of 18 are under the supervision of Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and approximately 15,600 of those have been removed from their original homes. However, only 9,000 foster homes are available — that’s down from about 20,000 in the past decade. The decrease in foster homes has several causes, including the daunting amount of paperwork required to become a foster parent, an emphasis on placement with relatives, insufficient financial support to care for foster children (for example, working foster parents might not have enough money for daycare), and inadequate support from DCFS’ social workers (they have limited availability to help troubleshoot problem behaviors or help find health records for school enrollment, for example). 

The county is upgrading the Welcome Centers for longer stays to ease overcrowding, and DCFS officials are working with group homes to establish 30-day emergency shelters. The proposed county budget for next year includes an increase in funds to hire more DCFS social workers. Although these steps will be helpful in shoring up the overwhelmed system, the need for programs that can keep kids from needing foster placements in the first place is even more important. DCFS has some family maintenance and prevention programs designed to prevent the removal of children from their homes, but like the Welcome Centers, these programs are not adequate to meet demand. A lack of funding is a common culprit.

We know there are programs that work. Consider the Family-to-Family program, a nationwide initiative developed by The Annie E. Casey Foundation to help improve child welfare services. This program laid the framework for a system called “Team Decision Making,” which means all members of a child’s “team” participate in placement decisions. The team — comprised of the birth family, social workers, family therapists, teachers and religious leaders, and so on — meet with the goals of building a network to support the child and to make decisions for safe placement. Ideally, the network travels with the child, regardless of where the child is placed. Over the past two decades, data have shown that services based on the Family-to-Family program have led to shorter and less frequent changes of placements for foster children. DCFS uses Team Decision Making whenever possible.

Other small programs that have proven effective are in place but need to be scaled up. Most of these programs are expensive in the near term, but proponents argue they save money in the long run, by helping participants lead more productive lives. Shining examples are so-called “family preservation programs” — the goal of these programs is in the name. Working with mental health partners, DCFS social workers identify a family’s strengths — it could be a supportive religious community, a relative who offers a place to stay, or a parent with stable employment — and then build upon those strengths while providing resources to minimize the weaknesses. Common needs include housing, food, money, and health care, especially mental health care, for parents and children.

From 2006 through 2010, more than 14,500 families received family preservation services in Los Angeles, with 66 percent of families staying together and keeping kids safe — that’s compared to about 50 percent of children who return to a parent after being placed in non-relative foster care.

Intensive treatment foster care, also called “therapeutic foster homes,” is another promising program. It targets youth ages 10 to 17 with serious emotional or behavioral problems. In these homes, the foster caregivers have undergone additional training to learn about caring for traumatized children and DCFS provides additional resources to caregivers, including a 24/7 helpline. The county has less than 100 such homes, but they are under court order to establish a minimum of 300. Therapeutic foster homes are expensive (approximately $87,000 annually per child), although that’s less costly than group homes and psychiatric hospitalizations. Recruiting and retaining caregivers in the program has been difficult, and program costs have posed barriers.

While programs for preventing child maltreatment are some of the biggest missing pieces in the county, there is one notable exception. The Nurse Family Partnership is a nationwide evidence-based project where public health nurses make home visits to impoverished, first-time pregnant mothers and their infants. Although expensive, the program has a proven track record for helping at-risk families, including a 50 percent reduction in child abuse. In Los Angeles County, about 1,000 families are enrolled in the Nurse Family Partnership, which is not enough to meet demand. More than 5,000 babies are born into poverty in the county every year, all potential candidates for this preventive program.

That’s because poverty is a major risk factor for child abuse and family disruption. This is one area where the city of Los Angeles is ahead of the policy curve, with its June decision to gradually increase the minimum wage. (Economist Arin Dube reports that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 will help lift 4.6 million people out of poverty nationwide.) Families with less financial stress and more tangible resources are better positioned for safety and stability.

The troubled Welcome Centers are only one symptom of the county’s overburdened, understaffed child protection services. But DCFS is not just a bureaucracy — in general, it’s a group of well-intentioned people working under horrible conditions with inadequate resources as they try to help children in unimaginable circumstances.

More than contempt, DCFS and the children in its care need the community’s help in the form of better funding, creative solutions, and, yes, the occasional media “call-out.” As I wrote in an earlier post, the most healthy, welcoming place for a child is not a county center, but with a safe, nurturing family. It takes a supportive community to ensure that happens.

Related post

A view from the front lines of L.A.’s overcrowded foster care system

[Photo by Gido via Flickr.]

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