Scandal Forced Reforms in County Children's Services

Battered by a barrage of criticism three years ago, the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services has ushered in significant reforms aimed at better protecting the nearly 49,000 children it serves, child advocates say.

The changes were sparked by a scandal that forced the agency to relinquish control of foster care licensing to the state. A state investigation had uncovered one foster care home in which 10 children were sleeping on the floor of a garage, with 10 more--some of them abused--in one room upstairs. Another home licensed for four children had 20 infants in 10 cribs. The agency's director was forced out; Peter Digre took his place.

The department now makes the required monthly visits to monitor children in foster care homes 93% of the time, up from just half of the time when Digre arrived. Social workers are now also required to see within hours a child 4 years or younger reported as abused.

The improvements come as the agency's budget has nearly doubled in the last five years and as the number of children served has dropped from 51,931 to 48,763. The department also hired hundreds more social workers after the scandal, causing caseloads per worker to decrease.

"Digre has tried to cut back on top administrators," said Pamela Mohr, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children's Rights.

And despite its problems, the agency has fared well compared to its counterparts nationwide: They saw caseloads triple over the last decade as funding only doubled, bringing some to the brink of collapse.

The changes represent only the first step toward reform. Social workers' monthly visits to families with abused children still last a scant 10 to 15 minutes, said Lupe Ross, vice president of the Los Angeles County Foster Parent Assn. That is because to comply with laws that ensure more tax dollars to the agency, social workers spend their time filling out 25 to 30 pages to open a new case, a paper load that has tripled since 1990, said social worker Will Devers.

Indeed, the workers' caseloads have dropped, Devers said, only because they are urged to churn through cases more quickly. "Caseworkers now spend more time doing paperwork than in the field dealing with the children and their families," Devers said.

Sill, Deanne Tilton-Durfee, who heads a congressional task force investigating the increase in child abuse fatalities, said child protective services "may be better in Los Angeles than in most of the country."

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