County to Fund Temporary Policy : Foster Parents Win Fight Over Insurance--for Now

Times Staff Writer

Facing a countywide boycott on foster child placement, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors agreed Wednesday to an emergency measure to provide temporary liability insurance to foster parents.

The San Diego Foster Parent Assn. had threatened to stop accepting any new foster children from county receiving homes after insurance protection ran out July 1. That would have left county social service officials searching for places for 400 foster children a month.

But after the board unanimously voted to set aside money in a temporary insurance pool for foster care, the foster parent association agreed to drop the freeze that went into effect Tuesday. Ernestine Jones, association president, said lifting the freeze took care of the local crisis for now, at least. But it contradicted the state Foster Parent Assn., which is calling on local chapters to refuse foster children until the state insures all foster parents.

"The state organization was hoping that we would still not receive placement, but our board found it important that we work with the Board of Supervisors," Jones said. "It's a very hard decision when there are kids out there that need homes and are hurting."

Lana Willingham, deputy county social services director, said the county's action was needed. "It's certainly in the best interest of the children here."

Since 1975, the county had hired private companies to insure licensed foster parents against third-party liability for injury or damages. Foster parents were covered for damage a foster child incurred by such things as throwing a baseball through a window or abusing a playmate. If an ailing child died in foster care, foster parents were also protected against suits by natural parents that claimed they had provided inadequate medical attention.

It was a suitable arrangement because San Diego foster care was a good risk: only 12 claims totaling about $9,000 have been brought in the last three years. During that time, the county paid about $30,000 a year in premiums for $500,000 in coverage, according to Gordon Sigafoose, county insurance coordinator.

But the county's carrier, Integrity Insurance, moved out of the state, and the liability crisis meant insurance for foster parents was unavailable at any price. "With Integrity pulling out of California, we had no place to go," Sigafoose said.

The latest policy expired June 30.

That worried San Diego's foster parents, who risked losing everything they had by caring for sick or neglected children.

"It seems we're a pretty low risk, but no one wants to touch us with a 10-foot pole," said Patty Boles, a vice president of the local association.

To pressure the county, the association joined a call by its parent organization for a placement freeze. Jones said 60 of the 233 San Diego members had pledged to boycott if the county did not take action, but only a handful had refused to accept children during the 40-hour freeze.

The supervisors decided a boycott was unacceptable in a county where 1,300 foster parents are not enough to handle even the normal flow of foster children. The board unanimously passed an emergency recommendation Wednesday to develop a county insurance policy. It would be paid for with the $45,000 allotted for a private policy that has not yet been used.

Supervisor Brian Bilbray said, "If the foster parent channel is closed off for even a short time, there would be a massive backup. It is critical that we keep this program viable."

But Bilbray said the county self-insurance arrangement was only temporary and that the county is depending on the state for help. "We're going to hold on until the cavalry comes," he said. "I think the bugle is finally being blown in Sacramento."

Sigafoose said, "We have covered the market, and there is no relief for at least a year or two. Until that time, we are going to assume it ourselves, and I think the state is going to do something about it."

Willingham said any delay by the state could cause long-term damage to efforts to recruit foster parents. "I think the state is being penny wise and pound foolish," she said. "This is one of those visible issues that will make people think twice about coming in and getting trained as a foster parent."

San Diego County officials support state legislation that would establish a $2.5-million Foster Home Insurance Fund to cover all of the state's 13,000 foster homes. Only Los Angeles, Ventura and now San Diego counties currently cover their foster parents. But the bill was mired in committee when cost estimates were revised to a maximum of $16 million.

Because the bill is stalled, the state Foster Parents Assn. called a statewide freeze July 7. But the freeze is spotty and is being defused in the three counties that have offered coverage to foster parents. Los Angeles County has about 200 foster parents who are adhering to the freeze and Orange County has about 450, according to Foster Parent Assn. spokesmen.

The freeze caused enough concern about a foster placement jam to prompt a Sacramento teleconference Wednesday among officials from state social services, insurance firms and the governor's office.

Linda McMahon, director of state social services, said only about 5% of foster homes would adhere to the freeze because many foster parents don't feel they need coverage and because their fears about exposure are not justified.

"What happened with the Foster Parent Assn. is that they have, in essence, educated people to the potential problem they are exposing themselves to," McMahon said after the teleconference. "What we are dealing with, more than a specific lack of insurance, is the fact there is fear now that didn't exist before."

State officials did not take a stand on the Insurance Fund bill Wednesday, but they indicated it was not the preferred solution. "It's a Band-Aid approach," said Kathleen Norris, chief of public information. "It's not going to the root of the problem, which is the liability issue."

State administrators agreed to come up with a plan to address the foster parent insurance issue in two weeks.

Times staff writer Leo Wolinsky contributed to this article.

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