South L.A. Group Aims to Reform Foster Care

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The grand jury said the foster care system is in such disarray that the agency running it doesn't know where all the children are on any given day.

A blue ribbon task force has said the system cannot guarantee the safety of children under its care.

Now a coalition of South Los Angeles residents and social service providers is having its say with a campaign aimed at revamping a foster care system that is in crisis and, they say, contributing to the devastation of their community.

"Family Care, Not Foster Care" was one of many initiatives launched at the State of South Los Angeles Conference: 1990-2010, held Friday and Saturday at the airport Marriott Hotel.

With a passion reminiscent of the 1960s, residents and social service providers vowed to organize themselves and push to change public policy and laws detrimental to residents of South Los Angeles--such as those pertaining to the current foster care system.

"If we're not at the table where these decisions are being made, nothing else will matter," said Anthony Thigpenn, a speaker.

The conference marked the 10th anniversary of the Community Coalition, an organization of African Americans and Latinos who work toward transforming social and economic conditions that lead to addiction, crime, violence and poverty in South Los Angeles.

Speakers at the event revisited the history of the community, highlighting connections between current problems and public policies and laws that coalition members say contribute to the problems of the community.

"Hopefully, it will be clear that these problems are not the result of some natural order," said Thigpenn, who is chairman of Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives.

The conference began with a keynote address by Melvin Oliver, vice president of the Ford Foundation. He spoke about the deindustrialization of South Los Angeles and the thousands of jobs that were lost between 1970 and 1985.

Like relatives listening to a sad family history, people at the conference heard of a period after that when drugs and drug use increased.

Rather than create hospitals and treatment beds, society created prisons and prison beds, said Saul Sarabia, director of the Prevention Network Providers, a group within the coalition composed of social service providers who work in South Los Angeles.

"We made a direct choice," said Sarabia.

While adults went to prison or remained lost in a cycle of drug use, their children ended up in foster care. In the 1990s, changes in the laws restricted the ability of those released from prison on felony drug charges to receive assistance such as food stamps and welfare, making it hard for lives to change and families to unite.

"You're putting people up against a wall," said Donna Calvin of Help Is on the Way, a parolee program in the Crenshaw District. "That makes all of us unsafe; that impacts the whole community."

But much of the conference was dedicated to finding solutions and planning for long-term changes.

After hearing from New Directions Choir, a group of formerly homeless veterans who sang freedom songs from the 1960s, participants broke into workshops to plan. They focused on land use issues in South Los Angeles, approaches to reducing crime, and problems confronted by those on welfare.

On Friday more than 200 youths attended the conference and discussed issues such as low graduation rates and allocation of school resources.

"We mobilized a lot of students," said Justyn Christian, 18, a senior at Washington Preparatory High School. "We feel like we planted a movement for South Los Angeles students. I'm just really positive and excited about it."

For the social service workers in the coalition, the foster care system, with its $1.4-billion budget and its failings, was the key topic.

The county's foster care system has been under fire in recent months. In July the 1999-2000 Los Angeles County Grand Jury released a scathing report that cited social workers' high caseloads and poor training and management as the cause of "a broken system."

A blue ribbon task force delivered a report to the County Board of Supervisors with an equally chilling assessment. Members of Prevention Network Providers argued that relatives who are willing to step in and care for children who would otherwise end up in private foster care homes or in group homes are not supported under the current foster care system.

Private foster homes receive $1,300 a month or more to care for children, and group homes receive as much as $5,000 a month, coalition members said. But relatives who accept children into their home receive comparatively little or, in many cases, nothing at all.

That can either push relatives into poverty or put children into foster homes--sometimes to be re-abused by the system that is supposed to help them.

The coalition's "Family Care, Not Foster Care" campaign calls for an increase in funds for relatives who care for children, and for the creation of an organization that will promote family care and work for the rights of families.

It also demands that these relatives be eligible to receive services such as counseling and tutoring for the children from the Department of Children and Family Services.

"We have a voice," said Susan Burton, a member of the coalition, echoing the theme of the conference. "I can't do it alone, you can't do it alone, but together we can."

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