Child Welfare Head Wants Foster Parents Tested, Trained


Following the recent arrests of two Los Angeles County foster mothers--one of whom allegedly killed the toddler she cared for--the head of the county’s child welfare agency is proposing that all potential foster parents undergo psychological testing and receive mandatory training in child care.

The reforms are being proposed by Peter Digre, director of the county Department of Children’s Services, who said they are intended to help the state weed out people who may be emotionally unstable and resort to violence against children. Digre also is calling for the state to bar any foster parent from caring for more than two children under the age of 2 at the same time.

Digre’s plan reflects increasing concern among some children’s advocates about the way the state licenses foster homes. These advocates, including Digre, say the state pays too much attention to the physical condition of the homes, and not enough to whether the parents are emotionally capable of raising children who often have psychological problems.

“They are not looking at what the foster parents know and what kind of people they are,” said Sharon Watson, executive director of the Assn. of Children’s Services Agencies, which represents 24 private nonprofit child welfare agencies in the county. “They look at, ‘Do we have an extra bed?’ and that kind of thing.”


Foster parents agree. “We’ve been asking for mandatory training for years,” said Lupe Ross, vice president of the Los Angeles County Foster Parent Assn. “They do that for adoptive parents, and I think anybody that is going to be working with children should have some kind of evaluation done prior to it.”

Digre’s proposal grew out of his evaluation of the two cases in which foster mothers were arrested. Both involved toddlers--who are stressful to care for--and both involved women who gave no indication that they could be violent.

On Nov. 4, foster mother Valerie Lacy-Walker, 28, of South-Central Los Angeles, was charged with murder in the beating death of her 23-month-old foster son, Robert Brown. She has denied the allegations.

Last week, Long Beach foster mother Mary Lee Walker (authorities say she is not related to Valerie Lacy-Walker) was charged with attempted murder of her 19-month-old foster daughter, Shonisha Manning.


While in Walker’s care, Shonisha suffered head injuries so severe she is blind and unable to walk or talk. Although the foster mother told authorities that the child fell from a jungle gym, doctors said the girl’s injuries were not consistent with that kind of fall. Walker is scheduled for arraignment next week.

Under existing guidelines, foster parents are required to participate in a 10-hour orientation program, but Digre, Ross and others say that is not enough. The state also provides training through local community colleges, but that is voluntary. Digre is recommending a 30-hour program used in other states to “give foster parents a good grounding in the normal developmental expectations of kids,” he said.

Officials at the state Department of Social Services, which licenses foster homes, have been lukewarm in their reaction to Digre’s plan. Spokeswoman Kathleen Norris said the proposal for training and psychological testing “appears to be outside the scope of the licensing program,” although she did say the agency is looking at alternatives that might address his questions.

One barrier may be cost. Both the state and the county face fiscal problems; Digre acknowledged that child care training for the county’s adoptive parents costs $3,000 per person.


“You start to project that to a statewide basis and it is pretty significant,” he said. “But on the other side of the coin, talking risks with children is intolerable and if this can minimize the risk, I think it is well worth it.”

In the two recent foster mother arrests, social workers had visited the homes frequently as required by the state, and saw no signs of abuse. Digre theorizes that the women may have snapped under the pressure of caring for very young children.

In the case of Mary Lee Walker, that pressure may have been especially severe. Authorities said Walker was caring for five children, all under 2.

State regulation prevents most foster homes from taking in more than two children under 2. But Mary Lee Walker was not licensed by the state; her foster home was operated by a so-called “foster family agency.” While such nonprofit child welfare agencies are authorized by the state to select and operate their own foster homes, they are not subject to the two-children-under-2 rule.


Digre and others say the loophole is especially surprising because foster family agencies, and the homes they run, are supposed to provide better care to foster children than regular foster homes.

They are also paid more. The Institute for Black Parenting, which operated Mary Lee Walker’s home, received $1,200 a month per child, some of which was passed on to Walker. That is about three times as much as a state-licensed foster home would receive.

“When I saw there were four or five kids in that home I was shocked, especially because they were all under 2,” said Watson, of the Assn. of Children’s Services Agencies.

But Jenny Jones, head of the foster care program for the Institute for Black Parenting, defended the agency’s decision to place the five children with Mary Lee Walker.


“Our social worker visited those kids on a weekly basis,” she said, “and the report that I always received was that Mrs. Walker is a very good foster mother, she provides excellent care, she’s cooperative, she follows through . . . “