Los Angeles County supervisors, convinced that the state intends to strip the county of its authority to license foster homes, voted Tuesday to voluntarily relinquish licensing responsibilities at the end of the month.
However, local officials said that the county Children’s Services Department would fight to administer foster care placements, along with the rest of the $300-million child welfare services program.
The action marked the latest escalation of a tangled dispute between the county and the state Department of Social Services, the outcome of which will determine who decides the fate of 10,000 foster children and possibly 40,000 other displaced children.
Supervisors said they were surprised and disappointed by the state’s seizure Friday of county foster care records. The seizures came amid allegations that the department had failed to protect children by assigning them to foster homes with documented histories of molestation, abuse and neglect.
State administrators, who on Monday began reviewing the seized files, said the system may be more deeply fraught with problems than they previously believed.
“I have seen a number of the files--about 15--and 10 of those are pretty bad,” said Lawrence Bolton, assistant chief counsel for the Department of Social Services. “I’m hopeful that it won’t be that high a percentage throughout.”
However, Robert Chaffee, director of county children’s services, said most of the 15 cabinets full of files taken by the state were older cases that predate a computerized placement process instituted last June.
“The impression all this would give is that something is radically wrong,” Chaffee said. “My comment would be, ‘No, nothing is radically wrong.’ ”
Only 10 California counties leave foster care licensing to the state, said Kathleen Norris, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services. Most of them are smaller rural entities, such as Mono and Lake counties, which find that policing the system taxes their budgets and staff, she said.
L.A. County supervisors said they decided to surrender licensing responsibilities in hopes of mollifying the state Legislature and the Department of Social Services. It was clear that the state was moving in that direction, they said.
State legislators had added the licensing transfer to the proposed state budget after listening to a litany of allegations about foster care problems in Los Angeles during hearings last week in Sacramento. Witnesses told the lawmakers of a number of alleged atrocities, including sexual molestaton and beatings of children by foster parents.
“We have to try to cooperate with the state to give them what they want . . . or we’re going to be made the bad guy,” said Supervisor Ed Edelman. “It is, I’m afraid, past the point of working it out.”
Loss of licensing responsibilities would mean 60 county workers would be transferred to other jobs. The county would be forced to forfeit $3.3 million in funds it receives from the state to oversee licensing.
Edelman and other supervisors peppered Chaffee with questions about county foster care, asking him whether any of the state’s allegations could be true.
Chaffee acknowledged that with a 10,000-child caseload, “we do have some parents who do become abusive” in foster homes, but he turned the brunt of the blame back on the state, which he said is acting out of an unreasonable fear of liability.
Bolton, the state attorney, said that defense misses the point.
“The reality is, sure we’re concerned about liability--we don’t want to leave children with convicted abusers,” he said. “But the liability isn’t what’s driving it, it’s the safety of the kids.”
In addition to the licensing transfer, the proposed state budget calls for a thorough review of all Los Angeles child welfare services programs, including placements in group homes and with relatives. If problems are documented and Los Angeles does not correct them, the state would move to take control of the entire program at the end of the year, affecting 40,000 children in addition to the 10,000 foster children.