L.A.’s deadly foster care tangle


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took a crucial step toward protecting the children legally committed to our collective care by moving toward terminating its contract with a troubled foster care agency.

Prompted by the outcry over last month’s fatal beating of a 2-year-old girl assigned to the agency’s care, the board -- acting on a motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky -- went into private session to reconsider its contract with United Care Inc. And it did the right thing, tentatively agreeing to sever ties with the group, pending confirmation in public session on Tuesday.

The Department of Children and Family Services will begin removing all children in United’s care.

As significant as the vote was, it ought to be regarded as a mere down payment on reform. The Department of Children and Family Services is Los Angeles County’s equivalent of a Gordian knot -- a complex interweaving of good intentions, human misfortune, impacted bureaucracy and political infighting. But dauntingly intricate as the tangle is, if we don’t unravel it, one thing is certain: vulnerable children dependent on this community for their most basic needs will continue to be mistreated and even killed by the adults to whom they have been entrusted.

One place to start is with the private foster care agencies, like United Care, with which the county contracts. The latest scandal to rock the department involves 2-year-old Viola Vanclief, who -- according to coroner’s records -- was killed by blunt-force trauma March 2. Her foster mother, Kiana Barker, and Barker’s live-in boyfriend, convicted armed robber James Julian, were arrested on suspicion of the child’s murder, then released pending further investigation.

Barker, against whom five previous abuse or neglect accusations have been lodged -- including a substantiated charge that she neglected her own daughter -- told authorities that Viola became trapped in a bed frame and that she inadvertently struck the toddler with a hammer trying to free her. The coroner found numerous bruises on the girl’s body.

Barker was recruited as a foster parent by United Care, whose troubled history with the county qualifies it as part of what one official calls “the child-care industrial complex.” Under its contract, United Care was being paid about $5.3 million a year to care for 216 foster children in 88 homes. Its foster parents have been cited repeatedly over the last few years for choking and striking children and whipping them with belts. In 2007, one of its foster children drowned while unsupervised in a pool. Every audit of the agency the county has done since 2005 has turned up financial irregularities.

United Care’s ordinary finances are interesting enough. According to auditors’ reports, the county paid the agency between $1,589 and $1,865 a child each month; United paid its foster parents between $624 and $790. Do the math, calculate the margin, and ask yourself whether you’re in the wrong business.

The most inexplicable part of this arrangement was that it was self-policing. State regulations require that foster children be visited regularly by a social worker. You may imagine that always means a visit by someone from the county. Nope. Under its contract, United Care also hired the visiting social workers, so the performance of the agency’s foster parents was monitored by social workers it also employed.

That raises the interesting question of how United Care’s social worker missed the presence of Julian in the home where Viola died. As a convicted felon, he should have been barred from coming anywhere near a foster child. Also in the home were Barker’s newborn infant fathered by Julian, his autistic 13-year-old son and a profoundly disabled 40-year-old woman.

After Viola’s death, Trish Ploehn, Children and Family Services’ embattled director, put a hold on any further placements with United Care and sent county social workers to visit each child under the agency’s care.

Sources say Ploehn -- whose people worked through the weekend to complete their visitations -- came to Tuesday’s closed session and recommended that the supervisors rescind United Care’s contract. State officials, meanwhile, are conducting their own investigation.

On Tuesday, the supervisors also instructed Ploehn to undertake another essential step: reviewing the county’s other 60 contracts with private child-care providers.

Now that the supervisors have recovered their consciences, what’s required is a top-to-bottom reform of the way Children and Family Services does business -- and Tuesday’s action was a major step in that direction.