Darlene Compton

Darlene Compton cuddles with her son, Jontay who returned home after six months in foster care. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / April 7, 2014)

The well-dressed woman in hoop earrings and glitter eye shadow took the podium. "Hello," she said, her voice gruff and resonant. "My name is Darlene, and I'm an alcoholic."

"I'm the alcoholic who was sweetly hit upside the head when Children's Services took my son away two days before Thanksgiving last year."

As Darlene Compton spoke on a November evening, her toddler son wandered the linoleum floor of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting hall in South Los Angeles. Fussing as the night session entered its third hour, he smiled fleetingly when the recovering addicts handed him candies and a Twinkie.

"I'm the alcoholic who doesn't like dealing with my son sometimes, but it's not his fault he's here. It's my fault."

Descending from the podium after a few minutes, she grabbed the boy's arm. "Shut. Your. Mouth," she told him, her long, manicured fingernail pressing his shoulder. They retreated to a bathroom whose walls barely muffled her yelling. He let out a wail.

It has often been uncomfortable for each, but 41-year-old Darlene Compton and 23-month-old Jontay are together again.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the largest county-run system in the nation, is giving second chances -- and sometimes more -- to hundreds of its most troubled parents in an effort to keep kids out of foster care.

It's part of what experts see as one of the nation's most promising experiments in child welfare. It is also one of the riskiest, putting many more children back into homes once deemed unfit, where some suffer further injury or even death.

Social workers have long sought to reunify families rent by abuse and neglect, based partly on research showing that foster care often leads to transient placements and ends in homelessness, joblessness or incarceration. The money that goes into foster care, family preservationists say, would be better spent on improving the skills of biological parents or supporting other relatives willing to take in abused children.

Los Angeles County, Alameda County in Northern California, the state of Florida and other smaller jurisdictions are pushing the approach much harder -- having embraced financial incentives that encourage reunification in even the most challenging cases.

Normally, the federal government pays child-welfare agencies according to how many children are in foster care. But in 2007, Los Angeles County agreed to accept a fixed sum for such care. If it exceeds that amount, the county must pay the difference. If it spends less, the county can use the savings to reduce child abuse and neglect as it sees fit.

"The thinking is that you don't need a perfect mother, you just need a good enough mother," said Jorja Leap, a child welfare expert at UCLA who trains social workers for the Department of Children and Family Services. "Orphanages are gone. Loving strangers are gone. This is kind of the least bad alternative."

When social workers reunited Darlene Compton and Jontay in May, they knew she had been off crack cocaine for just six months and had a history of failed alcohol and drug recoveries. She'd engaged in prostitution, hadn't had a regular job in 10 years and displayed a sometimes vicious temper, according to internal records and interviews.

Since 1999, they had received 13 calls from people concerned about her parenting, records show. Over the years, all five of her children either had been removed from her care by social workers or taken in by relatives.

But with Jontay, Compton was swiftly given another chance -- with fewer obstacles and more services than in the past.

Upfront, the department is paying hundreds of dollars to address her many needs. It bought the bunk beds and a dresser for her son's bedroom. It pays a child-care provider who picks up Jontay each morning shortly after dawn and drops him off at 1:30 in the afternoon. It pays the teacher who picks up Compton for parenting and anger management classes and has bought the bus pass that takes her to job training classes.

Because her son moved back in, Compton also qualified for other benefits: a $1,404 federal housing voucher, a $367 food stamp benefit and a $328 welfare check.

"I'm blessed," Compton told her AA group that night.

Violent encounter

In 2007, Compton was living in a homeless encampment near the corner of Long Beach and Alondra boulevards in Compton. She'd moved there figuring her abusive boyfriend wouldn't beat her in front of other men. "We had couches and beds there," she said. "You could live there."

Police arrested her on an outstanding drug possession warrant, and soon she was in jail. When she got out, she had no money for the bus. "I was thinking that I was going to get me a trick."

A man pulled up in a white Mustang. After he refused to pay her for sex, Compton said, "I flipped."

The man took a pocket knife and tried to slash her neck, she said. She fended him off, but the knife slashed her hand, leaving a deep red wound across her palm

"At the hospital," she said, "they give you a pregnancy test before giving you the pain medication. That's when I found I was about three months pregnant."

She returned to the vacant lot and continued using crack, despite the danger to the baby.

She considered abortion, she said, but couldn't follow through after seeing an ultrasound image. Her brother helped her get into drug treatment. She was sober when she gave birth to Jontay, she said, but relapsed twice afterward.

After Compton acknowledged the second relapse to her drug treatment counselor, a social worker arrived at her faded pink apartment building on Figueroa Street.

The woman announced she would be removing Jontay, based on a computerized assessment of the risks to his safety. Compton would be eligible to get him back on a trial basis in a matter of months -- a far more rapid schedule than had been in effect with her older children. If the reunification didn't work, the department could pursue adoption.

The mother quaked with emotion, seemingly torn between despair for her child and fear for her own livelihood.

"How am I going to pay my rent?" Compton asked. "What will happen to my check?"

She turned to Jontay, then 11 months old. "Give me some love," Compton said, pulling him close to say goodbye.

Innovative work

In Los Angeles County, the effort to make fractured families whole began more than a decade ago.

Between 1997 and 2007, the Department of Children and Family Services reduced the number of children in foster care from more than 52,000 to fewer than 25,000.

Still, the department wanted to do more.

"Once children got in foster care, they never left," said David Sanders, the former director of the county department who is now executive vice president at Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit child advocacy organization. He saw a need for an approach "that actually led to the outcomes we want, children in safe, permanent families," either reunifying children with their original families or, when that wasn't possible, lining them up for adoption.

Since the new program began in 2007, the number of foster children in L.A. County has dropped to 19,911.

"I think everyone in the country is looking at Los Angeles County for the innovative work we're doing here to move children to permanency," said Trish Ploehn, current director of the county's family services department.

"There is no doubt in my mind that children in Los Angeles County are safer," she said.

"You might ask, how can she say that when children have been hurt, but when I look at safety, I look at the bigger picture, which includes mental health, sense of stability, sense of belonging.

"When I add these things together, that tells me they are safer and their welfare is better off than it used to be."

The program also saves money. At the front end, the department is paying out more to reunify families -- about $1,300 a month per family.

But those costs are presumably temporary; ultimately the department is saving ongoing foster-care costs -- about $450 a month for a child under 5.

Florida officials tout similar results.

"Since we started doing this, we've had a 33% reduction in children in out-of-home care," said George Sheldon, secretary of that state's Department of Children and Families. "That's pretty remarkable."

In Alameda County, child welfare officials say they have used savings from the program to hire 21 caseworkers and are planning to hire nine more. The money also has allowed the county to move 107 children out of group homes and in with relatives.

Not everyone is keen on the approach.

Critics in Los Angeles County say it has created an incentive to keep children out of foster care without generating enough money for initiatives to ensure that family reunifications work.

About $35 million has been saved since 2007, about 2% of the department's $1.7-billion annual budget.

Social workers must manage children's re-entry into deeply troubled homes, which requires increased vigilance and sophistication, as well as a panoply of support services for parents.

The caseworkers on the front lines, often the least experienced employees, are receiving little oversight. L.A. County recently hired just five quality assurance workers to review the work of 7,000 workers.

At the same time, the failure rate for attempted reunifications has increased. Among children returned to their families in 2000 and 2001, 3.6% re-entered foster care in the next 12 months. In 2007 and 2008, the failure rate was 10.6%.

In extreme cases, children have been returned to their biological parents only to suffer starvation or fatal beatings.

'A great parent'

On May 16, Jontay's foster mother handed the boy over to Compton at the curb outside Compton's South Los Angeles apartment.

He'd learned to walk and was beginning to utter simple words. Cynthia Smoot, his second foster mother in about six months, marveled at how much he had changed. The first foster mother had been removed from the case after leaving older children in her care unattended.

"He came to me angry," said Smoot. "Always grunting. Now it's like he's a baby again and on the verge of speaking."

Social workers are betting that Compton has changed too.

To get the boy back, she submitted to regular drug testing and treatment and called her social worker every day. She took advantage of every opportunity to visit Jontay, she said, taking a bus to meet with him at a McDonald's midway between their homes. She turned up for "team decision making" meetings with child welfare authorities to discuss her progress and plot next steps.

To close the case, she must continue to pass monthly home inspections by her social worker, who checks her cabinets for food and examines the boy for bruises, among other things.

"You're doing a fantastic job," the social worker, Leo Stephens, told Compton during a telephone call last month. He said he hopes to close the case early next year.

Compton says her life is dedicated primarily to staying sober. AA meetings are her confessional, her social outlet; recovering addicts are her cheerleading squad and extended family. She sometimes attends two meetings a night, five hours at a time. On many days, she spends more waking hours at the meeting hall than at home.

She relies on a web of government and nonprofit services, including 25 hours of child care weekly.

Five days a week, she travels by bus to downtown Los Angeles for adult school courses required for a certificate in customer service.

"Darlene has math and writing difficulty. . . . Realistically, even though this class is only supposed to take 60 hours, it will probably take her two years," said Katherine Valenzuela, one of her teachers.

For several hours over two days, Compton struggled unsuccessfully with a calculator to total the amount a consumer would spend if he or she paid $5 every week for five years. Compton lost her temper at one point, screaming, "This is a bunch of crazy -- " using an expletive, according to accounts by both women.

On other days, she attends parenting and anger management classes, where her teacher is impressed with her progress.

"You should be teaching this class," Leroy Love told her at one point, after she provided the group with a heartfelt description of what it takes to succeed as a parent.

"A great parent is giving your child guidance and understanding your child," said Compton, whose own mother died when she was a year old. "Before, I wanted to leave my child with someone and do what I do. A great parent is making sure my child is dressed, cooking him dinner . . . being there as a parent. Not doing what I need to do."

Uneasy times

As Compton works on her sobriety and parenting skills, Jontay spends a lot of time in the care of other people, either at a child-care center or at home, under the watch of Compton's adult son, Roy Jones.

Jones, 20, has moved back in with Compton for the first time in six years, after a bout of homelessness.

"I'm glad I can be a help," said Jones, who was raised by a variety of relatives after he left Compton's care at 14. "That's what I was born for, that's why babies are born into this world. Babies are born into this world to build, to build people's self-esteem back up, to build people's joy back up."

When Compton is home, she is often lying under a blanket on the couch, unapproachable and prone to tirades.

"It ain't ever easy," said Jones, who sometimes weathers her moods by turning up the gospel channel.

"I have this unmanageability deep down in my gut," Compton said. "I just never feel right."

But Compton ensures that Jontay is well-dressed and grooms his hair. She calls him "Daddy" and sometimes rocks him to sleep. She gave him a cellphone to play with, then marveled at how he figured out it was broken.

The boy is willful as a toddler can be, his favorite word being "no." He throws tantrums that try her patience. She wonders how to contain him, asking a friend at one point whether it's OK to "whup" a child.

"No," her friend responded, as Compton nodded, "you can always talk to a child. You can always teach a child."

Soon Compton and Jontay may be spending a lot more time together. Jones is not likely to stay long, and Compton's child-care services will end when her case is closed. Then the real challenge begins.

"It took me a long time to get to this point," she said. "God won't ever let me go back."

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kim Christensen contributed to this report.