Sunday, September 10, 2006

The buck stops here

Editorial: Wards of the state
Karen Bass, Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.:Jul 24, 2006. p. B.10

CRACKING DOWN ON CALIFORNIA'S worst deadbeat parent, one who lets tens of thousands of children go without each year, took an act of the Legislature. The act was this year's budget bill, and the recovering deadbeat is the state itself, which has become the parent to about 75,000 children who were abused or neglected at home and ended up being brought up by the state in foster care.

About a third of those children live in Los Angeles County, home to more youths under government supervision than any other county in the nation.

For years the state and county have added to the misery of their wards by offering oversight that is too limited, services that are too byzantine and bureaucratic and funding that is distributed in such a bizarre fashion that counties actually have a financial incentive to break up families just to keep the money coming in.

That's changing. An unexpected boost in state revenues, and a tireless effort by freshman Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), helped boost spending on foster youth by more than $83 million this year. That comes on top of a federal waiver won this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that will allow some counties to use their share of $1.9 billion in federal funds for preventive programs.

There's a lot of optimism in Los Angeles County, where the number of children removed from their families already has been cut by more than half in the last five years. But now David Sanders, who has led the turnaround as director of the Department of Children and Family Services, is leaving.

Recent improvements in how the federal, state and county governments treat foster youth cannot be allowed to rest on the skill of a single leader or the unexpectedly good budget news of a single year.

That's why Bass has introduced AB 2216, which would help consolidate some of the gains with a more rational system of child welfare oversight.

Currently, state and county officials, dependency courts and boards of education defer -- or shirk -- responsibility to each other. Bass' bill would require agencies to coordinate their work through a child welfare council, with California's chief justice and secretary of health and human services in charge. The council would be required to measure results of programs to make sure they improve the lives of children.

"With no one in charge," the Little Hoover Commission reported in 2003, "the foster care system fumbles forward, and often backward, and costs children and families their happiness, their prosperity and even their lives."

AB 2216 is a step toward putting someone in charge. Once it passes, and Schwarzenegger signs it into law, Bass can follow up on another good idea she has floated: creating a foster care undersecretary in the governor's office so that there can be no doubt where the buck stops when it comes time to eliminate the state's and counties' reputation as deadbeat parents.