L.A. County drops foster care agency

Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate their relationship with the troubled foster care agency that placed a 2-year-old girl with a woman who is now under investigation in connection with the child's death.

United Care, which oversaw 88 homes with 216 foster children under contract with the county, had been repeatedly cited in recent years after caregivers choked, hit or whipped their charges with a belt. In 2007, a foster child drowned while swimming unsupervised in a pool.

Craig Woods, United's executive director, said the citation record obscured his agency's strengths and urged the county to conduct a fuller investigation before severing ties.

"Terminating United Care's contract will not accomplish what is needed to reform the system," he said. "United Care has a stellar 21-year track record of partnership with the county."

Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn said the termination was part of a larger review -- prompted by 2-year-old Viola Vanclief's death -- of the county's 57 foster agencies, which contract to care for 6,000 children.

Each of the children will be visited in the coming weeks by county social workers to verify their safety, Ploehn said. Auditors will randomly review the agencies' licensing records.

Viola's foster mother, Kiana Barker, 30, and Barker's boyfriend, James Julian, 38, were arrested earlier this month on suspicion of murder, Los Angeles police records show. They were released two days later, with no charges filed. Police continue to investigate them.

Barker, a resident of South Los Angeles, told investigators that Viola was trapped in a bed frame when she accidentally struck the child with a hammer while trying to free her, according to coroner's records.

Viola had multiple bruises on her body, records show. The county coroner deemed the death a homicide.

The case points to possible failings by three agencies: United Care, which was responsible for certifying the foster mother and checking regularly on the home; the state Department of Social Services, which licensed the agency; and the county, which placed Viola with the foster parent and also was supposed to check on her periodically.

During supervisors' questioning of Woods and their deliberations about whether to terminate United, new details emerged about missed warning signs.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said his vote to terminate United was at least partially supported by Woods' admission that the agency's social workers made errors during visits to the Barker home. According to Yaroslavsky, they did not report that many of the home's rooms were padlocked shut and that there were video cameras in most of the rooms. The purpose of the cameras was not explained.

Additionally, Yaroslavsky said he was troubled that Barker was certified as a foster parent by United Care despite a criminal record. According to a Times review of L.A. County Superior Court records, Barker was convicted of felony theft in 2002.

The newspaper disclosed earlier that she had also been the subject of five child abuse complaints, including one substantiated case involving her biological child.

Julian had a record of armed robbery, but neither United Care nor state regulators were aware he was living in the home, state records show.

Woods said his agency had known of Barker's criminal record but did not believe it was a problem because she had obtained a decision from state regulators that she did not pose a danger.

Out of 35,900 foster parents and other adults in homes overseen by foster agencies in Los Angeles County, 1,680 have obtained state exemptions for crimes that might otherwise bar them as foster parents or from being in the home, said Lizelda Lopez, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services.

Woods faulted the county for missing the risk factors for possible abuse in Barker's home, noting that the county was in the final stages of approving Barker to adopt Viola.

"Miss Barker was less than 30 days away from adopting this child. That adoption was being managed by DCFS," Woods said. "That adoption home study is supposed to be a lot more extensive and intrusive than a foster home certification."

Yaroslavsky responded: "Whatever mistakes our Department of Children and Family Services may have made -- and they did -- don't absolve you from fulfilling your responsibilities.

"None of us are at liberty to discuss what's being done internally in that particular case," he added, alluding to the county's possible lapses. "But suffice it to say it is as swift and appropriate as what's being recommended in your case."

The case is likely to remain under wraps for some time. Ploehn's department declined to release records related to Viola's case this week, citing a provision of a 2007 state disclosure law that permits prosecutors to keep parts of the records confidential when they believe their release might jeopardize a criminal inquiry. It is the 16th recent fatality case in which the agency has invoked the provision.


Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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