Friday, April 27, 2007

Homeless families on skid row

Sides Differ on Rescuing Homeless Children
Leonard, Jack, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2007.

LOS ANGELES -- Sonny Okereke combs the crime-plagued streets of skid row, but the Los Angeles County social worker isn't seeking criminals. He's looking for children.

In a push to reduce homelessness downtown, the county Board of Supervisors has declared zero tolerance for families living on skid row and is concentrating efforts on finding homes for children, even if that means children are eventually removed from their parents.

The rationale for the initiative is simple: Skid row -- with its rat-infested homeless camps, drug bazaars and prostitution -- is no place for a child.

But the role of children's protection workers, who assess youngsters for signs of neglect and abuse, has drawn opposition from advocates for the homeless and skepticism from even some county supervisors.

While Okereke and his colleagues offer families help with welfare benefits, mental health services and housing, critics say the effort unfairly targets the poor and deters some from accepting assistance for fear of losing their children. Nowhere else, they note, do county social workers go looking for abused children.

"I just am very uncomfortable about going through a community, whether it's skid row or Watts, and just saying, this child is out here," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes part of skid row. "There should never be an assumption that because you're poor, you should be taken from your parents and placed in foster care."

But program advocates say homelessness often is a result of more serious problems, including drug addiction and mental illness, that can endanger children. In at least one case, the failure to adequately assess a child on skid row contributed to his death, said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has spearheaded the effort.

"It's a terrible, terrible environment, an environment of derelicts and others," she said. "It is our responsibility to do all we can to pull that child out, hopefully with their parents."

The county's Department of Children and Family Services is working to shed its image as an agency bent on breaking up families, and it is prohibited under state law from removing a child solely because a parent is homeless.

Social workers say their priority is to keep families intact. The best way, they said, is to learn why families are homeless and give them mental health treatment, drug counseling or other help.

Members of the skid row team do not have the authority to remove children. If they suspect abuse or neglect, they must call the department's child abuse hotline. Another social worker is dispatched to investigate and decide if removal is necessary.

The team has roamed the skid row area offering such services for two years, and other social workers work out of shelters. The county says the removal of children is rare. From December through February, social workers saw 57 new families and made 20 calls to the hotline. Two resulted in the removal of children.

"Most parents tend to view us as the bad guys. 'Are you going to take our kids away?' " said Okereke, who has worked on skid row for more than 16 months. "We don't do that. ... We try to make them see what services we're providing."

Families have been among the fastest-growing groups of homeless people in recent years. Pinched between rising rents and declining public assistance benefits, more and more families dependent on welfare cannot find affordable places to live.

Nearly 100 children stay in shelters or on the streets in skid row. Hundreds more live in nearby hotels, where families with four or five children sometimes pack into a single room.

At Molina's urging, supervisors two years ago declared zero tolerance for families on skid row, and social workers joined employees from the county's welfare and mental health agencies working in the area. But, concerned about the boundaries of their role, they did not conduct thorough assessments of children.

In November 2005, according to a county official not authorized to discuss the case, a man walked into the Midnight Mission with his 3-month-old son. The team gave the father a voucher for a room. A full assessment would have shown that child protection services in Washington state had removed several children from his custody.

Three weeks later, a hotel employee found the baby's body on a bed in the room. The man had disappeared. Coroner's officials said the infant had been struck in the head and ruled his death a homicide.

The killing prompted an overhaul of the skid row team. Social workers now are required to conduct thorough assessments, including a check of a family's child- protection history. A nonprofit agency, Beyond Shelter, has a contract to monitor families after they leave skid row.

Orlando Ward, director of public affairs for the Midnight Mission, said he remains cautious about the county's efforts but noted that the number of families seeking help at the shelter has dipped over the last year.

"We're encouraged that maybe this intense outreach is having an effect," he said.

But Leslie Croom, a community organizer with the nonprofit United Coalition East Prevention Project, cited one couple who sought help only to have their children removed several months later.

Croom lived on skid row off and on while she raised five children
. "Families have the right to live where they want," she said. "The things we believe they are exposed to aren't any different from other communities."

One day Okereke's team noticed a 5-year-old girl playing by the fountain in central Los Angeles' Pershing Square. Her mother stood nearby with a baby asleep in a stroller covered with thick blankets.

Maria Lopez, 37, said she had been homeless for two days. Her boyfriend had been jailed for burglary, and she could not afford to stay in their motel room. She had spent the previous night at a friend's apartment.

"I'm a little nervous," she said as social workers used cell phones to seek housing for the family. "I don't want the system to come in and say I'm a bad mom and take my kids away because of my situation."

The children looked healthy, so Jose Zavala, a supervising social worker, walked the family to a nearby nonprofit agency. Lopez and her two children, Desiree and Derrell, spent the night at a shelter. A day later, she was sent to a hotel room.

Nearby, at the Union Rescue Mission, Shannon Barnes watched four of her five children playing in the narrow office where some of the skid row team is located. A week earlier, her mother-in-law had thrown the family out. With no place to stay, they sought help on skid row.

The team determined the children were well cared for, so the family was waiting for transportation to a hotel near the children's schools.

"God bless you! Thank you, Jesus!" her husband, Christopher Barnes, bellowed as he entered the office. He had just returned with insulin for his diabetes.

The couple said they spent a harrowing few days on skid row, seeing people urinating in the street, walking around naked and eating off the curb.

"I just seen some stuff since I've been here that I've never seen in my life," Christopher Barnes said. "When we met these nice people in here, it just changed our feeling. It changed our hope."