Heather Whelan has been a foster mother to some 20 children. She has nurtured broken babies back to health and worked closely with parents to fix families. She has also cringed as social workers made life-changing decisions about her charges without consulting her. In one case, she says, the county abruptly separated a pair of sisters she'd been caring for, traumatizing the baby girls because the social worker did not know how much the girls had come to rely on each other.
Carrie Chung is a professional social worker who became a foster parent in 2008. She describes how she once cared for a very young infant who required special foods and exercise to grapple with a difficult ailment. When a hearing was scheduled to decide whether the child could be safely returned to her family, Chung says, no one even bothered to tell her it was taking place.
Over the past three years, I've spent a lot of time in the Los Angeles foster care system — in courtrooms and waiting rooms, with children and lawyers, birth parents and foster parents. And while I can't say whether Whelan and Chung are the exception or the rule when it comes to how the county's Department of Children and Family Services relates to foster parents, I can say that there are persistent breakdowns in communication between social workers and foster parents — and that kids are suffering as a result.
Of the 20,000 or so Los Angeles County children who were living outside their homes this summer under DCFS supervision, about 6,500 were placed with non-relative foster parents. The children have social workers, but they only see them once a month or so. Their lawyers are often overwhelmed. Foster parents are often the only people who see these children every day and can know if they're having nightmares or trouble with bullies or if they are sinking or recovering.
"Next to relatives, they are the most important people in these children's lives," Philip Browning, director of DCFS, told me last week in discussing foster parents. "Social workers … really do need to take into consideration their views."
But at least some foster parents believe their views are not being solicited, and that important decisions made by judges in the county's Dependency Court are made without adequate knowledge of the children in their care. They have filed a lawsuit alleging that DCFS, in violation of state law, routinely fails to provide notice to foster parents of actions that affect the children in their care. Whelan and Chung are among the plaintiffs in the case, and they both spoke to me last week about the frustrations that caused them to go to court.
Browning and other DCFS officials declined to comment about the lawsuit but stressed that they recognize the importance of the information that foster parents are privy to. "It's our job and obligation," said Jeff Gibbs, a DCFS assistant regional administrator, "to make sure to involve the foster parents."
Deborah Dentler, a lawyer who represents a number of foster parents in this action and other cases, said the county is failing in that obligation; her clients are often shut out of important decisions. Social workers, she said, neglect to inform them of upcoming hearings and of tools they could use to challenge decisions they think are not in a child's best interests.
DCFS has, for instance, a grievance procedure that can allow a foster parent to protest the removal of a child, but Dentler says few foster parents know about it, and almost none avail themselves of it. It's important for foster parents to know about the process, she added, "because it allows the agency to self-correct" before doing something that might hurt a young person.
Instead, children who have bonded with a foster parent, who have just begun to settle into new routines, are sometimes abruptly pulled from foster homes in attempts to reunite them with parents, house them with relatives or locate them elsewhere. It's known as "foster care drift."
Advokids, a Northern California group that advocates for children in foster care, says its hotline is deluged with complaints from Los Angeles foster parents. Three years ago, it received about 300 such calls, a third from Los Angeles; last year, the overall number had jumped to 600, and more than half were from here. That's why the group has joined the lawsuit against DCFS, said Margaret Coyne, the organization's lead hotline attorney.
Carrie Chung doesn't blame social workers. She says she understands the crushing obligations of caseloads, the challenge of sizing up a child's situation in a brief, occasional visit. But Chung is determined to force the agency to listen to people like her.
"These kids lack a voice," she told me. "Foster parents are an invaluable voice."