Child Care, Not Cadillacs

The folks at Carson-based International Foster Family Agency took good care of themselves. Agency executives allegedly spent $1,800 a month to lease two shiny Cadillacs. The manager allegedly paid herself $8,000 for living expenses. What they allegedly didn't do with the public money they received is also interesting. They did not provide nursing care to a child with severe medical problems, run adequate background checks on potential foster families or make timely reports of sexual abuse, according to county auditors and a state probe.

Los Angeles County officials say they are no longer sending children to homes managed by the agency -- one of dozens of private agencies on contract to provide foster care in the county. State administrators have warned the outfit that it must straighten up to keep its state license.

But this agency's troubles are far from unique. Many, in fact, seem more interested in providing their executives with cushy lives than in giving foster kids basic care.

The 71 agencies that contract with Los Angeles County are really businesses selling a convenience: They recruit and train foster parents and monitor the children they put in those homes. Almost a third of the children in county foster care -- 8,000 kids -- live with families that these agencies oversee and have trained.

County social workers track each child in an agency-affiliated home and decide whether a child can return to his or her parents or would be better off with an adoptive family. For their part, the agencies are supposed to provide bonus services of sorts, including making sure kids with medical, behavioral or other problems see doctors regularly and connecting them with tutors or psychologists.

That's why the county pays these businesses up to $1,000 more per child per month than it pays for children in foster families who sign up directly with the county. But the county does little to review how these agencies perform and seldom takes action against those that don't do enough. The Department of Children and Family Services asked for the recent audit of International only after hearing reports of financial and safety problems.

Absent regular appraisals, some agency executives will always be tempted to put their own wants ahead of kids' needs. For the year ending June 30, 2001, for example, the Carson agency received more than $6.5 million in foster-care funds from Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Of this, $2.7 million went to foster parents, who no doubt spent it on macaroni and cheese and Kmart jeans for these abused, neglected and abandoned kids. What did the agency do with the remaining $3.8 million?

Many private agencies do indeed offer the extras for which the county pays them in a joint effort to repair children's shattered lives. Some don't do enough. As contracts expire in coming months, the county must demand that these foster-care businesses account for every dollar they receive -- dollars the taxpayers want spent on kids, not Cadillacs.

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