Sunday, December 24, 2006

Make Christmas wishes come true for youth in foster care

Foster care kids' 'angels'
Readers help grant wishes for bikes and more.
Hayes, Holly, Mercury News, Dec. 23, 2006.

Christmas will be much merrier for hundreds of children in foster care in Alameda County, thanks to readers of the Wish Book.

Donations to Adopt An Angel helped that non-profit agency not only grant special wishes for toys and clothing, but also provided funds to purchase 70 bicycles and helmets.

"Every child who requested a bike will have one on Christmas morning,'' reports Georgia Butterfield, who coordinates the Adopt An Angel program from her real estate office in Fremont.

Reading this, my Christmas just became merrier

400 Children in Foster Care Receive Holiday Gifts from PMI 'Angels'
Press release from the PMI Foundation, Dec. 22, 2006.

WALNUT CREEK, CA: Four hundred local children in foster care will be granted their holiday gift wishes on Christmas morning when they open presents from employee volunteers at The PMI Group, Inc. who participated in a special Contra Costa County program called Adopt an Angel, which provides holiday gifts for children in foster care and group homes who might not otherwise receive gifts.

PMI volunteers began participating in the Adopt an Angel program just four years ago, and they have embraced the opportunity to assist children in need, with more employees participating each year.

This year 400 PMI "angels" wrapped and donated a truck full of 700 gifts for children in foster and group homes, and the PMI Foundation contributed an additional $1,700 for the purchase of food, clothing, toys, and other items.

This combined contribution was the largest by a corporate partner participating in the Adopt an Angel program in the county.

"At PMI we are deeply committed to our communities," said Steve Smith, PMI's Chief Executive Officer. "We are very proud of our employees, and we're so pleased that their generosity is making the holiday season happier for a record number of children in our community."

The Adopt an Angel program is one of several volunteer opportunities organized by the Volunteer Emergency Services Team in Action (VESTIA), a 501(c)(3) charity arm of the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Office. All of the VESTIA programs provide much needed goods and services for people in need.

The Adopt an Angel program focuses on making sure that children in foster care and group homes receive the food, clothes, and toys on their holiday wish lists.

The PMI Foundation
The PMI Foundation is a private nonprofit organization established by The PMI Group, Inc. Its goal is to foster home ownership and provide access to affordable housing for underserved areas. The PMI Foundation does this by supporting national and local organizations that create housing opportunities and help revitalize neighborhoods in communities throughout the United States and around the world.

The PMI Foundation is located in Walnut Creek, CA.

Parents kidnap their son from foster care

Bio Parents Run Off From Foster Care With Baby Boy
CBS 2 - Los Angeles,CA,USA

A 5-month-old boy was taken by his biological parents Monday during a supervised visit with a foster parent in Carson, prompting an alert to be issued to law enforcement officials across the state, authorities said.

Cole Rabalais was taken from a foster parent from 17800 S. Main Street, near the Gardena (91) Freeway, in Carson at 12:45 p.m., according to the Carson Sheriff's Station.

The suspects are William Rowe, 29, and Tashna Rabalais, 28. They are believed to be driving a 1990 Plymouth Voyager with the California license plate 5WIR742.

The child is believed to in danger because Rowe is an alcoholic and Rabalais' mental state is in question, authorities said.

Rowe is 6 feet 2 inches tall, 180 pounds, with brown eyes and blue hair. Rabalais is 5 feet 4 inches tall, 130 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes, authorities said.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Letting children die to avoid appearance of racial disparity

Racial split a breach in foster care
Simerman, John. Contra Costa Times, Dec. 20, 2006.

When it comes to child welfare in Contra Costa County, geography and skin color make a big difference.

Take predominantly white ZIP codes in Danville, Clayton, Orinda, San Ramon and Walnut Creek. Reports of abuse or neglect in those areas are nine times less likely to lead a child into foster care than in poorer, racially mixed areas of Concord, Richmond, Martinez, Antioch and Pittsburg.

Lately, county welfare officials have pushed to change that with programs designed to keep more black children in their homes and out of foster care. But some county social workers say moves to correct the imbalance come with a price -- pressure to apply a lower standard of safety in those homes.

The policy may not be in writing, they say, but it is clear: Barring heavy violence or sexual abuse, removing a black child is frowned upon.

County welfare officials dismiss that idea, saying their goal is equal treatment. That means overcoming racial biases among caseworkers. Some child welfare scholars see racial or cultural bias as a key reason reports of child maltreatment more often lead black children into foster care, and why they stay longer.

The county initiatives, which include social worker training on "white guilt" and what some describe as a "bend-over-backward" approach for black families, have some social workers wondering whether the county is sacrificing safety to make its "numbers" look better.

"We were told not to remove any black children under the age of 3 unless we had supervisor's approval, and we never got it," said one veteran child welfare worker.

"We used to remove children who had black and blue marks and were beaten. Now, not if they're ethnic," said another. "We used to remove children because they were at risk. Then they told us not to remove children, particularly black children, unless they were unsafe in that moment ...

"It's crazy. All of a sudden we had different standards."

Both caseworkers insisted on anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.

Contra Costa launched a plan almost three years ago to reduce the "over-representation" of black children in foster care by setting specific goals. Included are grant-funded programs that target four areas with high rates of abuse reports and foster care placements: Richmond's troubled Iron Triangle, poor neighborhoods in Pittsburg and Antioch, and Concord's Monument Corridor.

"The policy is not to do anything different for children that are African-American or Latino. The policy is to make sure we are, in fact, assessing those families in the same way as we do other families," said Joe Valentine, director of county Employment and Human Services.

"There's no reason, theoretically, why African-American children should be removed at a higher rate."

Valentine, who assumed his post this year, said there never has been an edict against removing black children from their homes, but a focus on reducing the racial disparities may have puzzled some social workers.

"Initially, there may have been a lot of confusion. There's been a lot of training recently where we've tried to clarify where the process should be," he said.

Death draws scrutiny
The death in late October of a black 8-year-old Richmond boy, whose mother is accused of child endangerment and torture, raised concerns inside and outside Children and Family Services regarding how it handles reports of maltreatment.

Six times in the years before Raijon Daniels ingested pine-scented cleaner and died, according to police, county social workers fielded calls involving Raijon or his young mother, Teresa Moses.
In each case, county officials said, the reports never rose to the level where they would remove him
. The agency is reviewing its actions in the case, and a report to the board of supervisors is expected in a few weeks.

Most of the reports arose in 2005 as the county agency honed its focus on reducing racial disparities.

That year, the number of first-time foster care placements in Contra Costa fell nearly 20 percent, from 662 to 534. The decline, which occurred for whites, blacks and Latinos -- bucked a 7 percent increase in foster placements statewide and a 12 percent rise in Alameda County.

The number of substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect in Contra Costa also slipped, by 5 percent.

County officials said they were at a loss to explain the sharp decline in foster placements.
Such declines often are taken as a positive sign because most child welfare officials agree that the foster care system has performed poorly at best, and horrendously in many well-documented cases.

Mike Weinberg of SEIU Local 535, which represents county caseworkers, was skeptical of Contra Costa's decline, calling it the result of "hyper-revolution" in the agency. Facing what they consider a change in marching orders for black children, caseworkers applied the same standards across the board, he said.

"What's really happening is that they're just removing fewer children of all races. It's a good thing if it's because we're doing a better job. It's a bad thing if it's being done (based on) flawed policies and inappropriate goals," said Weinberg.

He alleged that four babies in the county died of suspected abuse or neglect in the past few years after coming in contact with the Children and Family Services system. Those babies "perhaps should have been removed but weren't due to what we believe are overly PC (politically correct) policies."

The Times was unable to verify the four deaths. Only since July has the state Department of Social Services required county child welfare agencies to file public reports on such fatalities or near-fatalities with the state, and Valentine said the county may not have records of deaths before then. Reports from the county's Child Death Review Team that would identify the victims of child fatalities are considered confidential.

The most recent report from Contra Costa County's Child Death Review Team analyzed child deaths from 1997 to 2001 but did not look at how many of the victims had prior contact with the child welfare system.

It found 52 children died from violence in that time, including 33 homicides, 17 suicides and two from unintentional injuries. Of the homicides, 12 victims were 10 or younger. Nine were younger than 5.

In the Richmond case, Children and Family Services never sought to remove Raijon. Instead, they offered his mother help under a new program in which the county contracts with local social agencies to introduce parents to services such as parenting classes and drug programs.

The program is voluntary for parents, and the county does not check to see whether the parent makes use of it.

It is among several programs the county has launched to help fill gaps in the child welfare system and partly address the causes of racial disparities.

Sobering figures
Numbers tell some of the story: Black children were 2.5 times more likely last year than whites to be the subject of allegations of abuse or neglect compared with their share of the child population.

Caseworkers substantiated allegations at about the same rate across racial lines, yet black children were nearly 3.5 times more likely than whites to enter foster care, according to county data compiled by UC Berkeley.

They also stay longer. The result: Last year, blacks made up 11 percent of the child population in the county but nearly half of those in foster care.

Statewide, blacks make up 7 percent of the population but 29 percent of foster children. In Alameda County, blacks make up 15 percent of the child population but a full two-thirds of foster children.

Children younger than 2 make up the lion's share of children entering foster care in all races, but particularly blacks.

The situation mirrors a national dilemma that has prompted hand-wringing among child welfare experts and calls for change. According to one study, from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, only Oregon sees a bigger over-representation of black children in foster care than California.

Some view those numbers as sensible; more minorities live in poverty or single-parent homes -- leading risk factors in studies of child abuse. But studies also show that when accounting for poverty, minorities are no more likely to abuse their children than whites are.

"When you start whittling away the explanations like poverty and this and that, you're left with a chunk that smells a lot like institutional racism, biased decisionmaking, whatever you want to call it," said Barbara Needell of UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research.

Such disparities are nothing new, but better data have shone a spotlight on them.

The debate lobs race into a vexing central question in child welfare: When is it better to keep a child in a dysfunctional home and try to build a support network around the family, and when is it better to remove a child into a dysfunctional foster care system in which many children languish, bounce from home to home and face grim futures?

They also may face abuse or neglect in foster care, or worse.

Last week, 2-year-old Deonna Green, who police said was severely underweight, died after ingesting baking soda at her new foster home. Police say she also suffered blunt trauma to her abdomen.

The foster mother, Khareasha Pugh of Pittsburg, was arrested on suspicion of willful child endangerment and may face charges.

Whether the county agency was aware of Deonna's condition -- police say she weighed a mere 17 pounds at the time she was admitted to the hospital -- remains in doubt, despite a reported "well-baby" check by a doctor Nov. 30.

The number of foster children in California has more than doubled since 1988, and county agencies have struggled to find qualified foster parents.

"I think we've all learned that if we're going to remove a child and put a child into foster care, we'd better be sure the foster care placement is better," said Mary Ault, deputy director of Children and Family Services for the state Department of Social Services.

The issue of racial disparity, she said, is "one of the most sensitive and one of the most controversial and one of the most profound issues that child welfare is looking at."

A different way
One relatively new approach has been adopted by Contra Costa County: In eight ZIP codes where reports of abuse run high and incomes low -- and countywide in cases involving young black children -- parents on the verge of losing their children can get intensive help from a customized team of caseworkers, clergy, relatives, local service providers and others.

The idea is to meet and hash out the family's problems and develop a plan -- a sort of makeshift intervention.

The approach, called "Team Decision-Making," or TDM, can mark a dramatic shift, but one that some social workers find hard to embrace, said Bill Bettencourt, a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The foundation has given money and advice to Contra Costa and dozens of other counties for a host of activities aimed at reinventing child welfare.

"There's a resistance from some of the folks, and then there are some who see it as valuable from the beginning. Once those meetings start happening, workers get involved and begin to see the value of it, not having to make all those decisions on their own," said Bettencourt.
"It's a way to begin. They have a long way to go."

Some, however, see a further drain on staffing that cuts time with clients. And some wonder whether it's making a difference. Three years after the TDM program started, county officials said they have not studied the impact and whether those children suffer less repeat abuse.
Similar programs, at least anecdotally, have proved successful elsewhere.

"Sometimes people don't think about the significant impact on the child and the family" from a removal, said Valerie Earley, the county's new director of Children and Family Services. "Their whole concept is, 'Oh, they're not safe.' They don't look at what options would have helped them be safe in the family."

Among the primary targets of the county initiative are child welfare workers themselves. Through training sessions on "exploring white privilege and guilt," for instance, county officials push caseworkers to gauge their own biases.

The point, said Valentine, is to "make sure we're not inadvertently assessing a child as being at a higher level of risk because they're African-American, Latino or some other race."

Caseworker complaints
Some caseworkers smell an insult.

"Why call it 'white guilt' if you're not talking about people who are racist?" said one. "They tried to tell us we didn't know what we were doing with black families, that we weren't sensitive. Most of us have been working in the field for a long time."

That impression itself can be damaging, said Miryam Choca, director of California strategies for Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit group focused on child welfare issues, including racial disproportionality.

"If folks start with a reaction that it's about them being bigots, it's very hard to get around that," she said. "And it also doesn't seem particularly accurate. ... Organizational or structural racism is different than people being individual bigots."

Some caseworkers see a different cause: a reluctance among county child welfare officials to remove children from more educated, moneyed parents who are better able to challenge the system.

"If it's a high-profile case or a wealthy family, they will change the recommendation. They will drop that case," said one social worker. "Basically, those kids don't get protected."

One thing is clear from a Times analysis: ZIP codes make a big difference

Countywide last year, 6.1 percent of all allegations of abuse or neglect resulted in a foster care placement. But the rate varies widely.

One Concord ZIP code, 94520, ranked highest, with one in 12 referrals -- or 59 of 714 reports -- resulting in foster care. Richmond 94804 was not far behind. The median household income in those two neighborhoods -- two of the county's three poorest -- averaged just more than $41,000, census figures show.

In three other ZIP codes -- in Clayton, Walnut Creek and Danville -- where median household income averaged $97,000 and whites make up 86 percent of the population, there were 252 reports of abuse or neglect in 2004.

None of them resulted in a foster care placement.

"When you see that kind of disproportionality," said Ault, the state official, "you think, 'Something's not right.'"

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or

Rising rate of homelessness for mothers, children and emancipated foster youth

New face of homeless women,
Kids almost half of county's transients
Anderson, Troy. Los Angeles Daily News, Dec. 1, 2006, pb. N1.

More than 40 percent of Los Angeles County's homeless population are women and children, a situation expected to worsen in the years ahead unless immediate action is taken, officials said Thursday.

On any given night, 21,000 women and 15,000 children are estimated to be homeless in the county, with nearly 90 percent unable to find official shelter and sleeping in everything from cars to abandoned buildings, according to the survey by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

And the San Gabriel Valley ranks as the worst area for homeless services in the county, with only one shelter bed for every 48 homeless people, according to the survey.

"What's frightening, what's challenging, is the trend of more and more women and children falling into homelessness," said Torie Osborn, senior adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"Why? Because of the breakdown of the safety net, decrease in affordable housing, lack of accessibility to health care and continued rates of domestic violence."

The new picture of the challenges women and children face in L.A. County was released at the nonprofit's first Women Leaders Summit in downtown Los Angeles.

It comes even as Villaraigosa has stepped up efforts to combat the growing crisis by allocating $229 million to shelters and services, and the county Board of Supervisors has allocated more than $100 million.

But officials said the scope of the problem is escalating quickly.

'Trend is horrifying'
"I think the most important thing is if we were looking at 10 to 20 years ago, it probably would have been 2 to 3 percent of the homeless were women and children, but now you are looking at (40) percent plus," Osborn said. "So the trend is horrifying."

In addition to 15,000 homeless children, about 8,000 18- to 24- year-olds have emancipated from the county's foster care system and are living on the streets, Osborn said.

"They don't have any place to go," Osborn said. "They don't have any training and are dropouts of high school. And in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there is an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 homeless youth. So you have a huge issue of young people, separate and distinct from women and children."

Marge Nichols, who researched the report, said demographic and social changes have played a key role in the growing numbers.

"One of the big changes is that women have become more independent and on their own," she said. "And they are also on their own when they run into really big trouble. And they may not have the family supports that were available in earlier times."

Services lacking
Nichols said the problem is even worse in the San Gabriel Valley, which has just 216 beds for 10,500 homeless people.

"There is really only one permanent shelter, and that's in Pasadena," Nichols said. "It has, by far, the worst underserved homeless population in the county. There have been various attempts to deal with it, but this is a huge problem. And there is a huge lack of services."

Nichols said there are some day programs for the homeless in the San Gabriel Valley, and some churches in the Pomona and West Covina areas offer shelter on a rotating basis in the winter.

"The daytime programs offer some help, but it doesn't help people get back on their feet the same way being in a shelter program does where you have a variety of services available that really help to stabilize people," Nichols said.

Although women have made progress in obtaining jobs and college degrees and in opening more small businesses, the report found that the percentage of single mothers with children living in poverty increased from 37 percent in 1990 to 40 percent now. Among married couples with children, 11 percent live in poverty.

While the percentage of women in the work force has remained steady at about 56 percent since 1990, the percentage of single working mothers has surged to 72 percent.

The increase in the number of single working mothers living in poverty has been fueled by more than a million former welfare parents entering the county's labor market from 1990 to 2001, increasing competition for low-wage jobs.

Child care too pricey
While a woman's average earnings in the county is $34,941 annually -- compared with $36,581 for men -- a single mother with two children needs to make $42,936 just to pay her basic bills of food, housing, child care and transportation.

And child care has become a make-or-break issue for working women, with just half earning enough to cover the average cost of $892 a month to care for two children.

"We haven't progressed in the areas that we should have," said Elise Buik, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "These are staggering statistics and the report is really to create urgency and a call to action for us to do something about it."

Osborn said community and political efforts will be key in easing the crisis but will take time to have an effect.

"This new level of political will has just started," Osborn said. "We have a 25-year epidemic. And so we're a year into this. So this is going to be like the Marshall Plan. This is a long-term, coordinated effort that requires planning, policy changes and more dollars than we have.

"If you look at New York City, they've been at this for 15 years in a concerted way. And we've only been at it for a year. So this is going to be a decade process."

Three young lives cut short

Foster Care Reform
These deaths drew news coverage.
But we need to know what happened whenever a foster youth dies
San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 3, 2006, pg. E5.

Conrad Morales
When Conrad Morales' relatives sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in the mountainside town of Randle, Wash., they thought they were providing him with a better life.

After spending his first 11 years in Los Angeles motels with his mother or relatives' homes in La Puente, the idea was that the boy might benefit from forests, meadows, fresh air, animals -- from the concept of an innocent childhood that his parents, both of whom had spent time in jail on drug and assault charges, hadn't been able to provide for him.

Two years later, the police pulled Conrad's body out of a trash can.

The suspects in his murder case are the very same aunt and uncle who were supposed to shelter and protect him.
The boy -- a high- spirited, popular student and avid birdwatcher -- told his best friend weeks before his death during the summer of 2005 that he was being sexually abused and beaten. Now that best friend -- and the entire town of Randle -- is still wondering how they could have failed to miss the warning signs: the filthy house, the erratic school attendance, Conrad's requests for make-up to cover the bruises on his face and neck.

Months before his death, Conrad began making desperate calls to his older sister, Vanessa Gallardo, in the Los Angeles area. Gallardo, who had already fought unsuccessfully for custody with Los Angeles County Child Protective Services, was perhaps the only one who called social workers and asked that someone check on the boy. She never found out about that check, but the police estimate he was killed weeks before they received a missing person's report.

Kayla Lorrain Wood
The life of Kayla Lorrain Wood has a made-for-after-school-TV- special quality to it: She was sexually abused, schizophrenic and depressed. She bounced around in Child Protective Services while her mother racked up drug charges. She was suspected of prostitution. And she died a terrible death -- this September, the Moreno Valley police discovered her stabbed and abandoned body after firefighters came to put out a fire in a building where transients gathered.

But beneath this tale of woe lies a 16-year-old girl who loved art, music and animals. Tall and thin, she dreamed of becoming a model -- an appropriate choice, perhaps, for a young woman who her mother describes as girly, pretty and frilly. In her foster-care placements, she ran away frequently -- to find her family.

Eventually, the police found her body instead.

Could anyone have saved her? In 2005, after an evaluation showed that Kayla was suffering from a mental disorder, Child Protective Services recommended that she be committed to a secure psychiatric facility. She ran away from her group home four days later. Though she later returned, no one followed up on the recommendation.

Although Kayla went missing at least 10 times during her two years in the foster-care system, social services admitted to losing contact with her parents. They didn't know she was missing until she was already dead.

Jerry Hulsey
The life and death of Jerry Hulsey shows how difficult it is for social workers to make the right calls when it comes to protecting children -- and how important it is that they do.

Jerry's biological mother and father were habitual drug users. His first brush with the Department of Social Services came at the age of nine months, when his biological mother passed out from a heroin overdose with him in the car. She was charged with child endangerment and ordered into drug treatment, where she met Vicki Lynn Hulsey, Jerry's future foster mother.

Though his biological mother couldn't stay out of trouble -- she didn't complete her treatment program and left her son in the care of anyone who would take him -- she did notice that Hulsey treated the boy well. So when she went to prison in 1996, she asked that he be left in Hulsey's care in Monterey.

Hulsey acted quickly to be certified as Jerry's foster parent, and by the accounts of friends and neighbors, treated him with love. When she petitioned for adoption, social workers weighed that more heavily than Hulsey's other problems -- namely, her background as a child-abuse survivor, her struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and her bipolar disorder.

In the end, Hulsey's past caught up with her -- she beat 10-year-old Jerry to death this year. An autopsy showed that he had cocaine in his system and that, at 4 feet 9 inches, he weighed 60 pounds.

Hulsey's deterioration and Jerry's tragic death shows how difficult it is to predict what will happen in an adoption. But it also shows how important it is for the public to understand social workers' choices.

Christmas gifts for foster youth

Some angels need holiday cheer too
Hayes, Holly. Oakland Tribune, Dec 2, 2006. pg. 1.

Some kids ask for bath towels, slippers, pajamas, backpacks, jeans. Others want a stuffed animal, a book, a special toy. The sort of things most kids take for granted.

They are children in the foster care system, and their situations vary. Some live in group homes or shelters, others with temporary families. Many have been abused or abandoned. What they share is that most of them are forgotten at the holidays.

Georgia Butterfield has made it her mission to see that at least some of these kids have something to unwrap on Christmas Day.

"There are 6,000 minors in the foster care system in Alameda County, and our goal is to have gifts for at least 600 of them," says Butterfield, who sells real estate in the Fremont area when she's not cajoling donations for Adopt An Angel, the nonprofit organization she has led for the last 10 years.

Alameda County Child Protective Services provides the names and sizes of the young people. A tag is made for each child with their first name, age, sex and, most importantly, fondest holiday wish.

"I read through about 15 or 20 of these tags at a time and then I just have to get up andwalk away for a while," says Butterfield. "The things these kids want are just so basic."

One year a 17-year-old girl asked for pots and pans, and dishes.

"She knew that when she turned 18 she'd be 'aged out' of the foster care system and would have to try to make it on her own," says Butterfield. "She needed stuff to help her get her life started. That situation just has to be very frightening."

Another year, a little blind boy wanted a guitar.

"Somebody not only bought him an acoustic guitar, but offered to teach him," remembers Butterfield. "Unfortunately, because of confidentiality rules, we could not put the two of them together. It broke my heart."

But then there are the moments that lift Butterfield's heart.

"We've gotten short notes from some of the kids who say the gifts they got made it the best Christmas ever," she says.

Butterfield was looking ahead to her worst Christmas ever when she learned about Adopt An Angel. It was 1994 and her son had recently died from complications of a stroke.

"In my office, they were wrapping presents for Adopt An Angel, a program I had never heard of," says Butterfield, who was inspired to take up a roll of wrapping paper and pitch in.

"It helped me," she says. "I really believe that when you give to the community, you give to yourself."

In addition to the holiday gift drive, Butterfield and her volunteers try to provide basic clothing -- jackets, sweat pants, sweat shirts, shoes, socks, underwear -- to the evaluation center where children are awaiting placement in safe housing. Many of these young people arrive at the center with only the clothing on their backs.

The situations these children find themselves in can be tragic. Butterfield wants them to be able to forget just a little bit at the holidays.

"We want to give them the feeling that they're not abnormal," she says. "That for that one moment they're just like everyone else."

Readers who would like to support this work may make checks out to Adopt An Angel, c/o Georgia Butterfield, 41111 Mission Blvd., Fremont, 94539. Donations are tax-deductible.

South Carolina discloses information; California doesn't

Editorial: Foster Care Reform
It works in South Carolina
Millner, Caille. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 3, 2006. p. E5

FOR MORE than 10 years, South Carolina has had one of the nation's strongest policies about public disclosure for the deaths of foster children. South Carolina's clear and succinct policies stand in stark contrast to California's confusing and disjointed disclosure system.

"We review all the records and talk about what the agency did or didn't do in a specific case -- was there a failure to make a home visit? Did someone not follow a policy concerning documentation?" said Virginia Williamson, general counsel for South Carolina's Department of Social Services. "The reports talk about agency activities instead of laying out the family's dynamics or revealing information about siblings or other relatives."

A public request yields plenty of information. They sent us a document containing summary information about the circumstances of death for children who died in 2004. The document included not just children who had died of suspected abuse or neglect while in active protection, but also children whose deaths were the result of accidents or natural causes and received no public attention. By listing this last group without names, their privacy is protected - - but the public can still do comparisons.

Composed in a simple, clear format, each entry is easy to read and analyze. For example, we learned that in 2004, there were nine child deaths due to abuse and neglect while in active protection, one well-publicized child death due to homicide, and 28 accident- and natural cause-deaths. Of the nine abuse and neglect deaths, one was a foster child -- Lakeysha Tharp, a 10-year-old in Richland County, of probable asphyxiation. We learn that the foster mother has been charged with homicide by child abuse, and that the foster mother's son (unnamed, because he is a minor) has been charged with the murder as well.

It's all there: the case, the lost child, and what's being done to ensure that her death was not in vain. And the sky hasn't fallen in South Carolina as a result of such disclosure. If they're worried about "privacy," or "liability" or "politics," the excuses that certain authorities offer in California, it hasn't stopped law enforcement from serving or social services from protecting. Nor has it stopped the public from carrying on with their private lives. The only difference is that the public also has the knowledge to ask questions and push for improvement.

"It's always a delicate balance between being accountable to the public for how we do business, the privacy interests of families, and protecting the state from lawsuits," said Williamson. "But ultimately we feel that transparency and accountability are important."

So do we.

California legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made progress this year by approving a series of measures to upgrade the level of consistency and oversight in the state's troubled foster- care system -- but there is much work to be done.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Who will hold DCFS accountable?

County withou entity to probe foster-case issues
Anderson, Troy. Los Angeles Daily News, Dec. 14, 2006, pg. N4.

Even as the number of foster children killed in drive-by shootings in Los Angeles County has quadrupled this year to 39, the Board of Supervisors has quietly canceled its contract with a panel of civil rights attorneys who oversee the Department of Children and Family Services.

While the board is seeking replacement options, the county is left without any entity to probe foster child deaths or other problems at DCFS.

"I'm gravely concerned," said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who asked the grand jury earlier this year to investigate 75 additional homicides of children in the past five years who DCFS had returned home from foster care or left in the care of abusive family members or foster parents.

"These were abused and neglected children the county was responsible for. Clearly, this is a broken system, and while I did not think the (Office of Independent Review, DCFS) was the complete answer, I did think it was a step in the right direction."

Delgadillo's concerns come as county officials have expressed dismay about an increase in the number of kids with open or closed DCFS cases who have died in drive-by shootings from six in 2004 to 11 last year to 39 as of Nov.1.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said many of the shootings occurred in South Los Angeles, but a growing number have occurred in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, Antelope and San Gabriel valleys.

A 16-year-old Pacoima boy with a prior DCFS referral died in March in a gang-related shooting while standing in front of a neighbor's house, DCFS spokeswoman Louise Grasmehr said.

"This is just simply outrageous," said Century City attorney Linda Wallace Pate, who filed a lawsuit against the county in a case the OIR-DCFS investigated. "It's highly inappropriate for the government to be using public money to put children in placements that clearly put them at risk."

The controversy erupted Dec.5 when the board voted unanimously in closed session to instruct the County Counsel's Office to terminate the contract with the OIR-DCFS, which was modeled after the OIR that oversees sheriff's investigations.

The agency, the brainchild of Supervisor Gloria Molina and former DCFS Director David Sanders, was launched in May to conduct independent investigations of child deaths and other problems at DCFS.

Molina had sought the creation of the OIR-DCFS following the October 2005 homicide of 2-year-old Sarah Angelina Chavez of Alhambra. A subsequent OIR-DCFS investigation found negligence on the part of child welfare and court officials in the death.

The new OIR-DCFS office ran afoul of the County Counsel's Office when the juvenile court gave it permission to publicly release a copy of its second investigation into the case of Thomas Marion Smith.

Smith had sued the county, alleging he had paid child support for more than a decade, thinking the money was supporting his daughter (Melinda) while she lived with her mother, when in fact the girl was in foster care.

"It's a sad day for the children in foster care to go back behind this curtain of confidentiality to conceal events that should be transparent," said Pate, who is representing Smith.

"There is no excuse for them trying to cover up this information," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Father makes sacrifices to keep children out of foster care

The Chronicle season of sharing fund: Father's love overcomes tragedy
Car accident couldn't deter dad's drive for custody of kids
Buchanan, Wyatt. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 15, 2006, pg B9.

Cornel Heslip knew he would lose many things after a paralyzing car crash on the Altamont Pass in 2004 -- his job, his ability to walk -- but he never imagined his three children would make that list.

While he was paralyzed and laid up in the hospital, Heslip's mother had to break the news to him: Child Protective Services had taken custody of his three children from their mother.

Heslip and the children's mother had split up and lived apart, and the authorities took the kids -- one who is Heslip's biological child and two he has helped rear since they were toddlers -- to a Stockton foster home. One month after the accident, he had to rebuild not just his own life, but also his family.

"In one shot, it was all wiped out," said Heslip, 48, who lives in Oakland and uses a motorized chair for mobility.

He began juggling the physical rehabilitation and therapy to reclaim his autonomy with parenting classes and other requirements to earn custody of the kids.

One major requirement was that he live somewhere big enough for the children, who are now 13, 12 and 8 years old. At the behest of an Oakland housing agency, Heslip asked for help from the Season of Sharing Fund. He received a $600 grant, which was enough for the deposit on a spacious, three-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a newly constructed building.

His children began living with him full time in June and are thriving in their new home. His oldest child, Delona Jacobs, received all As on her last report card, while his youngest is active in gymnastics at a nearby church. Marcel Jacobs, the 12-year- old, is doing well in school and in sports.

"Right now my job is them," Heslip said, though the kids help him, too. Marcel helps his father get in and out of his chair, and both he and his younger sister, 8-year-old Keyshauna Heslip, cut their father's hair.

"We've bonded so much more now because they understand the possibility that I may not walk. With God's blessing I may get a chance, but the reality is I'm paralyzed from the waist down," Heslip said.

"I keep him in check," quipped Marcel, who has a quick sense of humor.

Marvel Mills, who assisted Heslip in his housing search and with his Season of Sharing application, said Heslip was extremely committed to completing the tasks required to reclaim the children from foster care. His pre-injury salary meant he would receive disability payments large enough to take care of himself well in a smaller apartment, but Heslip did not do that.

"It's a lot to put up with, but he didn't want to see the children separated and was willing to go through anything to keep the siblings together," said Mills, a case manager for ECHO Housing in Oakland. Even in inclement weather, when many people skip appointments, Heslip would board the bus on his wheelchair, she said.

Heslip spends his days going to medical and rehabilitation appointments and getting anywhere he can in his chair. His mother serves as his caretaker and helps with the kids. He misses working and hopes he can learn to drive with his disability and revive his truck driving career.
His earnestly upbeat attitude sours only when he talks about the car crash.

"But again, I've got to thank God because I'm alive, first of all, and second of all I've got my kids," he said.

For information about the Season of Sharing fund or to donate, go to

Although an accident left him using a wheelchair, Cornel Heslip worked to gain custody of his kids, including Marcel Jacobs, 12, and Keyshauna Heslip, 8.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

County welfare directors stonewall attempts to track deaths in foster care

EDITORIAL On Foster Care Reform
Why are these children dying?
San Francisco Chronicle, December 3, 2006, pg. E4.

THE STATE OF California cannot say how many foster children die each year, even though a state law that took effect in 2004 requires counties to release the names, dates of birth, and dates of death for these children. The new law is not being followed by all: The Children's Advocacy Institute, a San Diego-based research and lobbying group that co-sponsored the 2004 law, requested the names for 2005 from all 58 counties. Nearly a year later, they're still waiting for two counties to respond.

The names that they do have for 2005 -- 48 so far -- offer more questions than answers.

What does it mean, for example, that nine of the deaths were children age 17 or older, five of whom were within six weeks of their 18th birthday? Are 17-year-olds simply more likely to get in car accidents? Suffer drug overdoses? Skateboard without helmets? Or does it mean the fulfillment of our worst fears -- that some children, facing the harsh realities of homelessness and desperation when they "age out" of the system at 18, are taking their own lives instead?

"There's no way to get more information without going to the courts," said Christina Riehl, staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute.

There is absolutely no reason why an advocacy group, a newspaper, an elected official, or any other concerned member of the public should have to go to court to find out what happened when a foster youth dies.

But due to California's baffling policies on disclosure, it's extraordinarily difficult for the public to learn who in the system is dying and why. Nearly every bill that has come through the Legislature in the past several years has been stonewalled by the County Welfare Directors' Association.

Take AB1817, a very modest bill sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, three years ago. Concerned about a wave of foster children's deaths in his district, Maze simply wanted legislators to be allowed to review the case files of deceased children in the system. But he couldn't get his bill out of the Judiciary Committee.

"They said that, as an elected official, I'd just use these cases as a political forum," said Maze. "I think it's just baloney. We need to know if there's some kind of pattern or trend or lack of oversight in case management, because, until we know that, we won't know how to fix the problem. But needless to say, I've been fought against on this issue tremendously by the welfare directors of this state."

Maze is not the only one frustrated by the lack of information about child deaths from California's social-services bureaucracies.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that the state was violating federal law by failing to file reports about the deaths and near-deaths of children due to abuse or neglect. Threatened with the loss of $60 million in child-welfare funds, this summer the state began requiring counties to file these reports. But -- and here's the rub -- the Department of Social Services keeps all names confidential, even in the case of foster children.

Imagine -- our state's most vulnerable children, betrayed by a state system that was supposed to protect them -- and we have no idea who they are. A look at the questionnaires the state started providing this July offer only haunting glimpses of their fates:

-- On July 30, a 15-year-old foster child died after either jumping or being pushed from a moving car in a suspected sexual assault.
-- On Aug. 17, a 2-year-old foster child drowned after her foster parents left her alone in a bath tub.
-- On Aug. 24, a 16-year-old committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after telling his sibling that he couldn't take their legal guardian's abuse anymore.

Confidentiality is important, especially when it comes to protecting the identities of family members and abuse reporters. We understand, as well, that it's important to protect the names of abused children who suffer near-fatalities but are expected to recover. But there are no good reasons why the full case files -- including names, counties and histories -- for dead foster children shouldn't be open to all of us. There can't be any accountability without transparency.

When we asked Sue Diedrich, assistant general counsel for the state Department of Social Services, why they couldn't tell us more, she said that the state could risk its federal funding.
That's simply not true, according to a federal official who tracks the issue.

"Federal law doesn't require that a state release (those details), but it doesn't prohibit those disclosures either," said Susan Orr, associate commissioner of the children's bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Indeed, there are at least two states, Georgia and South Carolina, which offer up just the sort of connect-the-dots information that an informed public needs -- and unlike California, they haven't had any threats of a funding cut-off.

There is a solution to this, and this year Assembly members Sharon Runner and Karen Bass even tried to offer it. It was AB2938, which required the release of juvenile court records, and county and state files, in the case of a child death pertaining to abuse or neglect. AB2938 should be expanded to include the deaths of foster children, regardless of whether or not they died as a result of abuse or neglect.

Unfortunately, although the governor and Legislature worked together to pass many important pieces of child-welfare legislation this year, AB2938 wasn't one of them. The county welfare directors' association voiced its opposition again, and it didn't go past its first committee.

For some reason, there are still people who seem to believe that if we don't get the information, we won't pay attention to the fact that our children are dying.

They're wrong. It's time to resurrect -- and expand -- AB2938. What we don't know can hurt us. It's unconscionable to let children pay the price.