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Grand Jury Urges Wide Foster Care Program Reforms

Times Staff Writer

A scarcity of homes, a lack of adequate training for foster parents and “potentially excessive caseloads” for children’s social workers have strained Los Angeles County’s foster-care system, according to a county grand jury report released Monday.

The study, which was forwarded to the Board of Supervisors, urged county officials to step up the recruitment and training of foster parents and to reduce the blizzard of paper work facing caseworkers.

In a prepared statement accompanying the report, grand jury Foreman Robert Leland said Monday that the audit was triggered by a concern for the welfare of the abused, neglected, abandoned or exploited children in the foster care program.

“It’s not so much that the foster care system isn’t working,” he added, “but our audit disclosed areas where sizable improvements are possible in both the quantity and quality of child care.”

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Among its recommendations were:

- Re-evaluating the recruiting strategy for prospective foster parents in light of an acute shortage of foster care homes.

The grand jury said that while the county Department of Children’s Services receives an average of 900 requests a month for homes, there are only 15,600 beds available in the entire system. Many of the children remain in foster homes for months or even years, and if no home or other emergency shelter is is available, a child is sent to MacLaren Children’s Center, a large county-run facility.

- Shortening the waiting period and licensing requirements for foster homes. The grand jury said the licensing process now takes up to six months, discouraging some applicants and resulting in only 80 to 100 new foster homes each month.

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- Requiring training courses for foster parents, whose only mandatory training program currently is in first aid. The grand jury found that about half of all new foster parents leave the program within the first two years, and a Children’s Services survey of those leaving the program revealed that the foster parents believed they received little help from the county.

- Requiring medical, educational and psychological assessments of children before they are placed in foster-care homes.

- Reducing the paper work requirements placed on children’s social workers and consider the use of a portable computer system to ease the paper burden on the county workers.

The grand jury also concluded that the large caseload carried by many children’s social workers--as many as 70 to 80 cases a person--is “making it difficult to closely monitor children in the foster care system.”

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That particular finding drew support Monday from a labor union that represents the county’s 1,130 children’s social workers and which is seeking to insert a provision for a caseload ceiling in a new county contract.

“There’s only one way to solve this problem, and that is to place an absolute cap on the number of abused and neglected children assigned to each social worker,” said Phil Ansell, a field representative for Service Employees International Union, Local 535.

Ansell said many caseworkers are routinely saddled with double the maximum number of cases outlined for each worker, and the union has proposed that social workers be limited to an overall average load of about 40 cases per worker.

The Children’s Services Department, however, has balked at establishing any limit.

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Caseload Yardstick

“We have a caseload yardstick that we try to adhere to, but as the referrals keep coming in, we have to accept them,” said Emery Bontrager, executive assistant to the director of the department.

Bontrager declined further comment, adding that department officials have not had the opportunity to review the grand jury study, which was conducted by the auditing firm of Coopers & Lybrand.

The grand jury is an advisory board made up of county residents.

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