As president of the San Fernando Valley Foster Parent Assn., Avon Dawdy has gone to bat for her members more times than she can count. When liability insurance for foster homes was a hot issue, for instance, Dawdy--along with her counterparts in other foster parent groups--pressed reluctant officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services to provide the coverage.
"We said, 'OK, fine,' " she recalled. "If you don't give us insurance we won't take any more kids. And we told all our people, 'If anybody calls you about taking a kid, you just tell them no.' "
The boycott lasted several weeks. Did they get the coverage? "You bet we did."
This incident, which occurred five years ago, sheds light on the power wielded by the 23 foster parent associations that represent an estimated 2,000 of the 3,800 foster homes in the Los Angeles County system. Moreover, it is a reminder of the system's dependence on the people who open their homes to the abused, neglected and otherwise troubled children the county serves.
Foster parent groups were in the news last month, with disclosures that top officials of the Children's Services Department failed to revoke the licenses of two prominent foster parent association leaders, even after county investigators concluded that children had been abused in their homes. One case involved the president of the Los Angeles County Foster Parent Assn., the countywide umbrella group that represents 18 of the 23 local organizations.
The disclosures hastened the departure of Robert L. Chaffee, who resigned as the director of the troubled department. They also rocked the foster parent groups themselves, raising questions of whether their leaders received special treatment and about the influence they may have with county officials.
The associations sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s to provide support for foster parents who felt isolated from one another and frustrated by the county bureaucracy. The groups have since grown into a network of forceful advocates for foster parents and their children. Their views have affected department decision-making on issues from the licensing of foster parents to the care of medically fragile youngsters.
When members were frustrated over tardy payments to foster parents, the associations threatened to stage a strike--and got paid. When they thought a particular worker in the department's licensing division was too strict, they complained vociferously and the employee was transferred.
The associations have become an integral part of the county's foster-care system, which serves 10,000 abused and neglected children each year. Department officials praise their work in recruiting new foster homes and in training new foster parents. Social workers say they rely on foster parent leaders to help them find homes for difficult-to-place children.
Top officials of the Department of Children's Services meet monthly with the association presidents, who form what is called the Foster Parent Advisory Board. The department finances board members' trips to national foster parent training conferences; over the past two years, those expenses have totaled more than $29,000. And, when Children's Services established a respite care program to assist foster parents who need a break, the association president who drafted the proposal was placed in charge.
"I don't think the executive staff of this department can be too close to foster parents, because without them we couldn't survive," said Al May, the department's deputy director in charge of foster home licensing and investigations. "I think the role of the foster parent is so critical and so important that they must be supported."
But now, as the department faces allegations that it failed to protect children in its custody, critics say Children's Services officials were so worried about keeping these vocal foster parent leaders happy--or quiet--that they lost sight of their responsibilities to crack down on foster homes where abuse took place.
"They certainly seemed very concerned at the county about foster parent affiliation," said Lawrence Bolton, a lawyer for the state Department of Social Services who headed a recent review of county foster home investigations. "When I'd be discussing cases they'd say, 'Well this is sensitive, so-and-so has a connection to a foster parent association.' And I was always saying, 'So what? The issue is, did they beat up the kid?' "
Earlier this month, County Administrative Officer Richard B. Dixon investigated the department's handling of the two cases in which top officials overturned the recommendations of their own investigators and permitted prominent foster parents to keep their licenses, despite allegations of serious abuse.
One case involved Maxcine Knight, president of the Los Angeles County Foster Parent Assn., and her husband, James Knight, a former regional vice president of a national foster parent group. The other involved Ruth Kelly, president of the South Central Foster Parent Assn. The state has moved to revoke the licenses of both homes, although the Knights and Kelly have denied wrongdoing and are appealing the state action.
Dixon's report to the Board of Supervisors noted that while "management was trying to recruit foster homes and improve the relationship between foster parents and the department," the county had received repeated complaints from some foster parents that licensing workers were "rude and authoritarian," and that investigators were "allegedly singling out black foster parents to harass." Association presidents say those complaints were often aired during the county's monthly meetings with them.
Dixon emphasized race as a factor in the decisions of top Children's Services officials, saying: "It appears that (Children's Services) managers . . . allowed concern about Mr. and Mrs. Knight's prominence in the foster care community to cloud their judgment." The Knights are black. In the Kelly case, he said the county decision not to revoke the license "appears to have been based on (the) belief that the investigation might have been racially biased."
Maxcine Knight declined to be interviewed and her husband could not be reached. Kelly also declined comment.
The two officials responsible for those decisions have left their jobs. Jean McIntosh, a former assistant director of the department, now heads a children's advocacy group. Barbara Uchida, the chief of licensing, took a voluntary demotion several years ago. McIntosh could not be reached; Uchida declined comment.
Whether there were additional instances of favored treatment for foster parent leaders is unclear because investigative records are not available to the public unless a formal accusation has been filed to revoke the license.
However, other records show that at least five foster parent leaders are being investigated for alleged abuse, and investigators have recommended that a sixth leader be stripped of her license for alleged physical abuse. In that case, records show, county investigators had substantiated a complaint of sexual abuse two years ago but no action was taken at that time.
Licensing chief May cited that case as one that he had handled properly and said he did not know of the investigation two years ago. He took issue with complaints by Bolton, the state official, about the county's concern over "sensitive" cases.
"We might say that to him but that did not mean that we're going to make an exception," May said. "We're making him aware of political issues, because these same calls that we get also go to the governor, they go to the state department (of Social Services). . . . But I think it's very unfair of him to interpret that as allowing foster parent favoritism."
At best, the relationship between foster parent groups and the Children's Services Department strikes a tenuous balance. The county is dependent on its foster parents--without them, where would abused and neglected children go? But the department has a duty to regulate foster homes.
State officials have complained repeatedly that the county has been lax in revoking the licenses of allegedly abusive foster parents. In June, the state seized 15 file cabinets of county foster care records; the county is reviewing more than 650 investigations that the state deemed incomplete or improperly handled.
In the wake of the state's complaints, county officials volunteered to give up their authority to license and investigate foster homes. Now, amid a management shake-up in the Department of Children's Services, state officials are preparing to take control of that job.
The transition, scheduled to be complete Oct. 1, has some foster parent leaders worried that the years they spent opening the lines of communication with county officials will be lost.
"They treat us now like we're part of the professional team," said Caroline Mraz, president of the South Pasadena Foster Parent Assn. "And they're taking all of that away from us. When I got into this you were afraid to say a word to a worker, afraid they'd come and take a child out because they didn't like you. We are now free to call anybody in authority that we want."
While Mraz and other foster parent leaders say they do not believe they have wielded undue influence with the county, department sources have confirmed that a veteran licensing supervisor, Clare Kjolsrud, was transferred to another job against her wishes in 1986 after foster parent presidents complained that she was too strict. However, the sources said, the foster parents' complaints were not the only factor contributing to Kjolsrud's transfer.
It was Kjolsrud who recommended that the Knights' license be revoked, only to be overturned by her supervisors. She declined to be interviewed about her job switch, and officials responsible for it are no longer with the county department.
Patty Kamoto, a department licensing worker who is active in the union that represents social workers, said it was well known in the department that foster parent leaders had influence. "They do have some political clout," she said. "And they certainly had influence with administrators in this department."
But one department source, as well as a foster parent leader who did not want to be named, said they suspect the county gave special treatment to the Knights in order to quiet the leader of the department's harshest critics.
"When these things came up they should have shut (the homes) down but instead they said well, 'We'll protect you.' " said the department source. "In protecting them, they quiet them. . . . I don't think (foster parent groups) had a lot of clout in the department. I think the department just bought off the leaders."