Opinion: Family over foster care is still a priority in L.A. County

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Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, responds to the Times’ Feb. 5 article. If you would like to respond to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed in our Blowback forum, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The Times’ Feb. 5 article on child-family reunification efforts in Los Angeles County’s foster care system began with a grossly misleading headline before it was later corrected: ‘County to end emphasis on family over foster.’ The headline did not at all reflect the state laws under which the county’s welfare system operates, and it sent a very negative message to readers. It reinforced the widespread perception in many communities that our child welfare system does more to break up than preserve and build families, the cornerstone of our society. This misperception often limits cooperation with the system. I’m sure this was not The Times’ intent.

The intent of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which governs our child welfare system, is very clear: Officials must try to keep children with their families. Below are a few code citations that prove my point. Section 300 states, in part:

‘It is the intent of the Legislature that nothing in this section disrupt the family unnecessarily or intrude inappropriately into family life. . . . Further, nothing in this section is intended to limit the offering of voluntary services to those families in need of assistance. . . . To the extent that savings accrue to the state from child welfare services funding obtained as a result of the enactment of the act that enacted this section, those savings shall be used to promote services which support family maintenance and family reunification plans.’

Section 300.2 states in part:

‘Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the purpose of the provisions of this chapter relating to dependent children is to provide maximum safety and protection for children who are currently being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, being neglected, or being exploited, and to ensure the safety, protection and physical and emotional well-being of children who are at risk of that harm. This safety, protection and physical and emotional well-being may include provision of a full array of social and health services to help the child and family and to prevent re-abuse of children. The focus shall be on the preservation of the family as well as the safety, protection and physical and emotional well-being of the child’ [emphasis added].

Section 306(b) states:

‘Before taking a minor into custody, a social worker shall consider whether the child can remain safely at home. The consideration of whether the child can remain safely at home shall include, but not be limited to, the following factors: (1) Whether there are any reasonable services available to the worker, which, if provided to the minor’s parent, guardian, caretaker or to the minor, would eliminate the need to remove the minor from the custody of his or her parent, guardian or caretaker.’

Finally, Section 319(d)(1) states:

‘The court shall also make a determination on the record, referencing the social worker’s report or other evidence relied upon, as to whether reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of the child from his or her home . . . and whether there are available services that would prevent the need for further detention.’

These are only a handful of examples from the law that make clear that the emphasis of child welfare in California is and will continue to be on family over foster care, regardless of what The Times writes in a headline.

The key, of course, is that our work is done safely. The fact that there are some tragic, sickening cases is not enough to ignore the law and keep more children in foster care. In fact, the policy of supporting families is consistent with child safety. Better training and supervision of social workers would go a long way toward improving child safety in the county’s Department of Children and Family Services. Lightening social workers’ caseloads and increasing resources wouldn’t hurt either.

The history of child welfare in Los Angeles -- of which I have been a part for 20 years -- shows that wholesale removal of children from their homes fails children and their families, jeopardizes child safety and is, over the long term, detrimental to us all. The right goal is to achieve a balance where the emphasis is on working with families while maintaining safety. A few tragic cases are no reason to turn the clock back to the days of wholesale removal of children.

None of this is to say that our courts will be lenient on homes we know are dangerous for children. But while I am under no illusion that we do our jobs perfectly, we are not going to run scared from our obligation to prioritize family unity, even in the face of deep budget cuts. I urge The Times and others to continue following our system.