Monday, January 01, 2007

Every foster child deserves a mentor

No place like home
LA County’s top foster care official wants to keep kids out of ‘one of the worst things that can happen’

Piasecki, Joe. Pasadena Weekly, July 6, 2006.

David Sanders (who has since left to join Casey in Seattle)
With as many as half of local foster youth becoming homeless after leaving the system without high school diplomas or as victims of undetected abuse committed by caregivers, there’s something both disconcerting and reassuring about how those in charge of foster care plan to fix it.

To keep kids from slipping through the cracks of the enormous and impersonal foster care bureaucracy, Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director David Sanders believes what needs to be done has less to do with taking better care of foster children than it does with keeping them out of the system altogether, or getting them through it quickly.

“We don’t want children in foster care,” said Sanders, who manages the cases of more than 22,000 children who can no longer live at home. “Youth who grow up in a safe family where they aren’t being abused do much, much better, and that’s what we’re trying to create for everybody: that we not have children grow up in foster care. It’s one of the worst things that can happen.”

Since Sanders took over the department in March 2003, the number of children in county care has dropped dramatically from more than 30,000, and most kids are spending about 600 days in the system — down from 1,100 — before returning home to their families or being adopted.

And just last Wednesday, Sanders said he expects the number of youth in care and the length of time they are there to decrease even more rapidly with the recent approval by state and federal officials of a funding-restrictions waiver that will allow care workers to spend their time keeping families from breaking down.

Under the old rules, DCFS received funding only to care for those children who they removed from dangerous homes, so essentially the county was being punished for trying to keep families together.

Perhaps the biggest fan of Sanders’ work is Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a former teacher and longtime advocate for better conditions for foster youth. Antonovich described the 48-year-old Sanders, formerly a child psychologist, as “a breath of fresh air” in a recent telephone message left for this reporter.

“Through his leadership, children which were floundering in foster care are being adopted and being placed in permanent families that will provide them the foundation to become successful, productive citizens,” said Antonovich.

But now he may be holding his breath. The morning after Sanders spoke with the Weekly, nonprofit foster youth advocates Casey Family Programs announced they had just hired Sanders to leave LA and become an executive vice president at their national headquarters in Seattle. Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich, said supervisors will be meeting in closed session this week to try to keep Sanders from leaving his job.

If he decides to move on, Sanders’ new position will entail influencing national foster care policies, said Casey spokeswoman Megan Barrett, who would not elaborate on details of the hiring process. Sanders could not be reached.

Meanwhile, the entire state has a lot riding on what’s happening in Los Angeles. As roughly one-third of California foster youth live here, progress made or lost is a significant factor in whether the state will meet federal mandates for the safety and stability of kids in foster care and finding them permanent homes.

Currently, the state is failing to meet those goals, according to an April report by the National Center for Youth Law. And if things don’t change soon, according to that document, federal officials could as early as next year withhold $60 million in foster care funds.

All over the map
Even with recent improvements in Los Angeles, foster care conditions vary widely throughout the state, said Curt Child, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.

“A fundamental problem with our California [child] welfare system is we have 58 different programs running in 58 different counties, and a real lack of strong leadership at the state level to make sure all children have opportunities for safety and stability,” said Child, a member of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. “On the federal measures, we’re not doing well at all.” - JUST LIKE OHIO: 88 COUNTIES

As of earlier this year, only 13 counties are meeting a federal requirement that no more than 8 percent of kids who leave foster care return in less than a year, all but 14 counties move kids around too frequently, only 33 counties are helping enough children become adopted and only 36 have limited abuse in foster care to .57 percent of children.

Statewide, many counties have been making improvements in these areas, but “It’s not like it’s a new program,” said Child, who characterized recent gains as limited and very slow in coming.
The 2004 California Performance Review Report commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who last week approved new foster care funding with passage of the state budget — also described state foster care as a system in crisis, mainly for lack of a strong, centralized oversight body.

The challenges in the system include confusing funding streams, seemingly inequitable foster care payment rates, lack of qualified social workers, too few foster homes and fragmented service delivery. Although various state and local agencies and thousands of dedicated individuals are working on these issues, no one has the authority to coordinate efforts, ensure accountability and resolve the problems that continue to plague California’s foster children,” reads the report.

Despite these concerns, Schwarzenegger cut $3.5 million intended to target foster care deficiencies from last year’s state budget, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
This year, however, Schwarzenegger has approved an $82 million boost for foster care and child welfare concerns. In part, the money will, among other things, go toward reducing social workers’ caseloads, increasing housing and educational opportunities for emancipated foster youth and hiring more adoption caseworkers, according to a statement by Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care Chair Karen Bass.

But will it be enough? Foster care has been low among state priorities so long that California’s top foster care officials are paid lower salaries than top LA County bureaucrats, and reform efforts have not kept up with the need for them, said Carole Shauffer, director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center.

“Not only do foster kids not vote, their parents don’t vote. Even though there is some commitment to it, there is no NRA of foster care,” she said, making foster care an issue all too easy to ignore.

Long way to go
Los Angeles County, despite improvements, still isn’t reaching many federal standards, admitted Sanders.

When it comes to children being adopted in less than two years or being reunited with families in less than one — indicators of how well plans to keep children out of foster care are going — LA is among the 10 worst-performing counties.

“Those are areas that we do very poorly in. We have made dramatic improvement in them, but we started out so poorly in those,” said Sanders, who has nearly doubled the amount of children adopted within two years and has raised by nearly 10 percent the number of children reunified with their families in less than a year.

County social workers are also now practicing what Sanders calls “alternative response,” essentially bringing services into homes that haven’t reached the point of becoming abusive but are headed for trouble.

Keeping abused or neglected children out of foster care is risky business though, according to the National Center for Youth Law Report.

“Victims of child abuse and neglect in California are re-victimized at alarming rates. Nearly 4,000 children are victims of abuse or neglect within six months of the agency substantiating earlier abuse. More than 11,000 children are abused or neglected again within one year,” reads the report, which found all but five counties were unable to keep less than 6 percent of the kids they take abuse reports on from becoming abused again.

Deanne Tilton Durfee, head of LA County’s Interagency Council on Abuse and Neglect in El Monte, is worried that those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“Data at the local, state and national level on child abuse and child fatalities is very inaccurate,” said Tilton Durfee, a former chair of the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. In fact, “There’s never been a time when reports on serious and fatal abuse of children have coincided,” she said.

But then there’s the personal factor.

Even after suffering acts of neglect and abuse at the hands of their parents, most kids crave the affection of their parents, said Victoria Adams, who runs the LA County District Attorney’s Office’s Family Violence Division.

“We’ll see children in the most abusive of homes see their parents sitting at the defense table ... still wanting to give them a hug,” said Adams. “The touching thing is that children are so incredibly vulnerable. Despite the abuse involved, there is always something in their heart that allows them to love the perpetrator.”

Relative numbers
It’s not all bad news, however.

LA comes in above federal standards for keeping foster children leaving care from coming back into the system. The county also does well in not moving them through too many different foster homes.

Among children who had recently been in foster care for about one year, more than 5,000 in the state had been shuffled between at least three foster homes, according to the National Center for Youth Law report. Los Angeles, to its credit, performed best among large counties, surpassing federal guidelines by keeping nearly 90 percent of kids in its care in only one or two different placements last year.

For this, Sanders credits a push to find relatives of foster kids who are willing to take over legal guardianship. But that didn’t come easy. In 2003, Shauffer’s Youth Law Center sued Sanders and the county for allegedly breezing over required assessments of relatives who take in foster children, a suit that was settled by the DCFS establishing a monitoring program for relative placements.

“It’s a challenging area,” said Sanders, because “there is an interest in the child being with the relative right away, while at the same time we’re asking them to go through the same thing that a foster home is going through. Now they have to be studied and visited.”

In LA, more than 11,000 foster children are placed in relatives’ homes. While those children are more likely to leave foster care with the safety net of family connections, they are, said Tilton Durfee, as likely to die by the hand of their caregiver as kids staying with strangers.

In 2003, according to Interagency Council statistics, two foster children were killed by relative caregivers and two by foster parents. In 2002 no foster care deaths were reported, but in 2001 deaths in relative caregivers’ homes outnumbered deaths in foster parents homes three to two.

While that may have everything to do with the fact that more of LA’s kids stay with relatives than in foster families, group homes and licensed foster care agencies combined, “There’s also the dynamic of the apple not falling far from the tree,” she said.

In the newly approved state budget, $8 million will extend benefits to relatives of foster children who take them in, said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart. The amount budgeted for increasing transitional housing opportunities for emancipated foster youth is $9.9 million, a $4 million increase, she said.

The best remedy for California’s foster care shortcomings, Sanders maintains, is reducing the need for such spending by getting kids into families.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t need transitional housing, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t need a number of resources for youth that are turning 18 but have been historically in foster care. My concern has been that we let too many children leave without family, because family are going to be there for kids when they turn 19 and 20 and 21, so if their housing doesn’t come through there’s somebody there who will say ‘but I can take you in,’” he said.

Amplifying voices
For Congressman Adam Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, correcting the now-clear problems with America’s foster care systems lies with listening to experts closest to the system — in this case, the foster youth themselves.

“In [this series] you have documented a lot of the problems with the foster care system. Kids move from placement to placement, often five or six placements, and too many kids simply fall through the cracks, resulting in much greater problems when they are emancipated. Part of the solution is to empower young people in the foster care system, so that when dependency courts make decisions that will affect their lives forever, that they have a greater voice,” said Schiff, a Pasadena Democrat and co-author of the Fostering Our Future Act.

If adopted, Schiff’s legislation will require the federal General Accounting Office to conduct a nationwide study of foster care systems and recommend improvements.

Schiff’s bill also focuses heavily on court practices and follows recommendations by the 2003 Pew Commission on Foster Care that, along with changes in funding similar to the waiver obtained by Sanders, called for children to be better represented in the court process. The Fostering our Future Act would create incentives to help dependency courts retain qualified attorneys for youth and require courts to keep performance data on what happens to foster children.

For Miriam Krinsky, finding brighter futures for foster children will require not only better tracking of what happens to them, but also making sure that courts and social workers actually share that information to create better outcomes for kids.

What we measure is what we value, yet for children in foster care we do very little to track or measure what they’re doing,” said Krinsky, director of Home At Last, a policy research institute created last year by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to Occidental College and the Children’s Law Center.

While social workers and judges may not be working together in other parts of the country, interagency cooperation is nothing new in Los Angeles County, where Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash and Dependency Court Supervising Judge Margaret Henry meet with Sanders on a weekly basis, said Henry.

“I think the bottom line of the Pew Commission recommendations are courts have to be very active and have a relationship with child welfare officers and work together on reaching the best outcome,” said Henry.

With that approach, according to a recent West magazine profile of Nash, who could not be reached for this story, LA County judges are twice as likely as the rest of the state to keep kids in foster care after they turn 18.

Henry tries to keep as many kids who lack skills and resources in county care for as long as possible, but sometimes “If they insist on getting out, they get out. I think it’s psychologically difficult for some kids, like it makes them different that they’re in the system and they want out,” she said.

“There are kids who go all the way through the foster care system and at 18 they want out and don’t want anything to do with anybody and don’t want to come to court. You feel like the system’s failed them, but you look back and can’t figure out what happened or when.”

Other times, simply listening to foster children has its own positive result.

In early June, Home At Last hosted a two-day retreat during which dozens of foster youth testified before the Blue Ribbon Commission, a temporary advisory body which was established by the state in February to study the foster care system and make recommendations. Like Child, Krinsky is also a commission member.

“Many of them raised frustration at not having been a part of the process,” said Krinsky of many of those who testified. “Ability to participate in court is part of the healing process for them.”

What sometimes comes out to judges are complaints about social workers or foster parents that would otherwise go undiscovered, said Henry. Most often, however, it’s the small but crucial parts of being a kid — like wanting permission to join a sports team, get a part-time job or visit friends.

“We need to pay greater attention to things we may not think of as basics but for youth in foster care, when it comes to self image and becoming productive adults, are more important than anything,” said Krinsky.

Good call
Sometimes, the decisions that judges make can be lifesaving, said Queenese, an 18-year-old who grew up in San Diego. She became a foster child for the first time 10 years ago shortly after she ran screaming into the night because her stepmother tried to beat her with a large piece of wood. While much safer, foster homes never felt like home, as she found one foster parent verbally abusive and another blind to the fact that boys in the home would try to grope and molest her.

But the real trouble started after she returned home. She was raped repeatedly by her father from age 13 to 17 and didn’t trust her social worker, who she said spent their monthly visits smoking and drinking with her stepmother, enough to tell her about it.

Trying to avoid the foster care system after reporting the abuse to police, she slept at friends’ homes until she came to Los Angeles, where a judge placed her in a group home.

Here she found support, therapy and “the closest thing I ever had to a mom,” she said, and was able to graduate from Van Nuys High School.

“My dad was trying to find where I was, so I got scared and I came out here and got into placement, got the support I needed,” said Queenese, who didn’t want her full name printed. “A lot of people say the system hasn’t helped them, but if you really, truly use the system and everything the system has to offer, you can do really good.”

How to help:
The Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect is working to provide an adult mentor for every foster child who wants one, but needs volunteers. To find out how, call (626) 455-4585.