L.A. County shifts approach to children in foster care

Los Angeles County has suspended a long-standing effort to reduce the number of children in foster homes because keeping more of the children with their birth families could be unsafe, the county’s top child-welfare official said.

Foster care: The headline for an article in Friday’s Section A about foster care in Los Angeles County incorrectly said county child welfare officials planned to “end” an emphasis on family over foster care. As the story reported, Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn told a reporter last week that such reunifications would not happen as frequently as in the past until new reforms were in place to ensure safety. The county still plans to reunite or preserve families whenever possible. —

The decision marks a turnaround for the Department of Children and Family Services, which for many years has sought to cut the foster care rolls, in part by trying to mend troubled families. The department’s leaders have cited the decline in foster children -- from a high of 52,000 in 1997 to a low of 19,900 last year -- as one of their proudest achievements.

“I do want these numbers to start going down again but only when I can assure everyone that the work we are doing results in safety for that child who is going home,” said Trish Ploehn, the department’s director.

“I don’t know how much more we can go down in the numbers, though,” she said. “We are a very large county, and it’s possible that we are already at the level where we are supposed to be.”

The decision is the most significant of several reforms made by the department after a series of high-profile child deaths last year, some of which involved the department putting too much faith in its ability to rehabilitate families. In 2009, The Times reported that reunifications led to some children’s further injuries and even deaths. Isabel Garcia, for instance, starved to death two months after child-welfare officials deemed that she, her five siblings and their parents were all doing well.

Toddler Angel Montiel and his siblings were reunited with their parents after the couple enrolled in parenting classes, drug testing and other “family preservation” services.

He subsequently was beaten to death. An autopsy found dozens of injuries, some fresh and some healed, including broken bones and burns. Originally charged with murder, his mother pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“These cases had a very deep effect on the department,” Ploehn said.

Under the department’s policies, social workers had been encouraged to keep children in their original homes by helping parents deal with problems believed to underlie abuse, including addiction, anger, unemployment and mental illness. At the same time, the county increased the number of child-parent reunions, reduced the time such reunifications take and -- for children who couldn’t go home -- doubled the number of adoptions.

In 2007, the department wagered that it could drive the numbers down further. It entered an experimental federal program that pays the county a limited sum for foster care services. If it exceeded that amount, the county had to pay the difference. If it spent less, the county could use the savings to reduce child abuse and neglect as it saw fit.

The policy pivot by Ploehn is likely to be controversial. Foster care has many critics who say children often are dispatched to one place after another without any sense of permanence or normal family life, and end up homeless and unemployed in adulthood.

A group called DCFS Give Us Back Our Children often demonstrates outside Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park, saying that too many children are removed from families unnecessarily.

One member, Sabreen Shabazz, 56, of Los Angeles, cares for her 11-month-old granddaughter, who was removed from her daughter’s custody.

Shabazz worries that her granddaughter might be unnecessarily sent to foster care because the family lives on only $845 a month and sometimes struggles to pay for apartment repairs ordered by the department.

“DCFS has a family preservation unit and they need to focus on that work more, not less,” said Janet Mitchell, a friend who attends the group’s monthly meetings. “Look at Sabreen: She’s a loving grandmother who just needs help. They live in poverty, but the child is happy because she is loved.”

In 2009, at least 17 children died of abuse or neglect even though child-welfare officials were well aware of their troubled family histories. Fourteen youngsters suffered such deaths in 2008.

Among the other reforms under way:

* Three hundred workers are being redeployed to the child abuse investigations unit at a cost of $37.5 million, reducing the average investigator’s caseload from 25 to 18.

* An improved computer system is being developed to provide child-abuse investigators with more information from other county agencies -- mental health, for example, or law enforcement -- about troubled families.

* An additional layer of review is being added to child-abuse investigations before they can be declared “unfounded.”

* Dozens of workers are being disciplined for their poor handling of cases that ended in death.

By some key measures, however, the county is falling behind schedule on reform efforts, especially the computer system.

That project is overseen by County Chief Executive William T Fujioka because it requires coordination with many county departments.

The need for such a system has been repeated in more than a dozen reports over almost two decades. Each concluded that county agencies were not exchanging vital information that could prevent death and injury to abused children. None inspired significant change.

Once again, the deadline for many of the improvements -- such as adding data from county hospitals and local police departments -- has passed without action. Work on longer-term goals has barely begun.

Overall, the department’s reform efforts also have been stymied by a 9% reduction in its $1.7-billion budget this year. That’s not likely to improve any time soon: Ploehn has been ordered to plan an additional 9% cut for next year.