It Pays to Let Them Stay

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors could take an important step next week toward changing the cockeyed rules that split up too many troubled families and send thousands of children into strangers' foster homes. But board support for a petition asking Washington for permission to spend federal dollars more intelligently would be only the first step in what would be a tough lobbying campaign.

Even top officials at the Department of Children and Family Services admit they are often too quick to yank children from their parents at the first report of trouble. That's partly because the federal government picks up the county's tab for kids living in foster homes but usually won't pay as readily for the therapists and help that would keep families together. These rigid rules don't help the children they were designed to serve.

Certainly when abusive or negligent parents pose an immediate danger, social workers should remove their children to keep them safe. But often the parents' problems really are poverty or drug abuse. In some of these cases, the children might be happier staying home if Dad got help kicking his meth habit and found a job or Mom learned to control her temper.

That's what Illinois child welfare officials have discovered since 1997 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted them waivers similar to what Los Angeles County seeks, allowing Illinois to direct federal dollars to where they do the most good. This money pays for drug treatment, parenting classes, counselors and other services for about 8,000 families trying to do better while staying together.

Illinois officials have found that keeping salvageable families intact helps all kids: Parents and children who want to stay together get the services and support they need to thrive, and harried social workers have more time to focus on a smaller number of foster-care children with more severe personal and family issues. Contrast that with Los Angeles social workers who drive hundreds of miles each month just to check on children in far-flung foster homes. With 30-plus children each, they don't have nearly enough time to arrange the personalized help -- psychotherapy, math tutoring and medications -- that these knockabout kids so badly need.

By backing the rule-waiver petition, county supervisors can get social workers out of this hamster wheel so they can help more children. The supervisors' support would prod California's Department of Social Services, which applies on the county's behalf, to finish the paperwork. After that, state and county officials would have to press the feds hard to lift the constraints on an estimated $250 million, a sum that would make a big difference for 41,000 local kids.

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