Special Report: Private foster care system, intended to save children, endangers some

Viola Van Clief died while under the foster care of Kiana Barker. Barker, who was supervised by United Care, a private foster agency that, despite numerous dead children and other violations, the state allowed it to stay in business.
Viola Van Clief died while under the foster care of Kiana Barker. Barker, who was supervised by United Care, a private foster agency that, despite numerous dead children and other violations, the state allowed it to stay in business.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Those living in private agencies’ homes are a third more likely to endure physical, emotional or sexual abuse, a Times analysis found.

THE CHILD MILL | A private system | A turnaround in Tennessee | Scars of abuse

Private foster care system,
intended to save children,
endangers some

Those living in private agencies’ homes are a third more likely to endure physical, emotional or sexual abuse, a Times analysis found.

December 18, 2013

They were found barefoot in January, huddled under a blanket against the biting High Desert winter cold, two kids on the run from a former foster mother, who had bound their hands with zip-ties and beat them.

Investigators substantiated in October that a Lancaster foster father sexually abused two young sisters in his care.

Such cases of abuse are scattered through the files of California’s privatized foster care system — children whipped with belts, burned with a car cigarette lighter and traumatized by beatings and threats.

California began a modest experiment 27 years ago, privatizing a portion of foster care in the belief that it would better serve children and be less expensive. Lawmakers decided to enlist local charities to help recruit and supervise foster parents.

Today, the state’s private foster family system — the largest in the nation — has become more expensive and more dangerous than the government-run homes it has largely replaced.

Those living in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children in state-supervised foster family homes, according to a Times analysis of more than 1 million hotline investigations over a recent three-year period.

In Los Angeles County, at least four children died as a result of abuse or neglect over the last five years in homes overseen by private agencies, according to county officials. No children died in government-run homes during that period.

The flow of money to private foster care — now about $400 million a year — introduced a powerful incentive for some to spend as little as possible and pack homes with as many children as they could.

Those agencies are so short of homes that they accept convicted criminals as foster parents. The state has granted waivers to at least 5,300 people convicted of crimes. In the most egregious cases, people with waivers later maimed or killed children.

The system is so poorly monitored that foster care agencies with a history of abuse can continue caring for children for years. Substantiated cases of wrongdoing can bring little punishment from regulators.

Private agencies now care for 15,000 children statewide. The care comes at greater cost — an additional $327 million between 2001 and 2010, the state auditor found.

Los Angeles County has come to heavily rely on this system; five out of six foster children who are not placed with relatives go to private homes.

It is “as bottom of the barrel as you can imagine,” said Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at UC Berkeley. “They are clearly not keeping track of quality issues. It's really quite surprising we don’t have more tragedies.”

Into this system came 2-year-old Aiden, who in 2010 was removed from his family’s San Bernardino County home because of neglect.

Social workers placed Aiden, his 3-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister with an unemployed Apple Valley couple who were recruited and supervised by the Joshua Foster Family Agency.

Their allegations are contained in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Aiden and his siblings against the agency.

Aiden's foster mother, Thursday Young, was approved even though county social workers had received complaints that she was abusing children. Social workers certified her partner, Devon Kirk, despite his illegal drug use and, according to police, acknowledged gang connections.

Young and Kirk converted their garage into an indoor marijuana farm, police later discovered. “A shame I smoke 2 quarter pounds a month,” Kirk wrote on his Facebook page.

A 13-year-old foster child living in the home complained that the couple were using drugs and hitting Aiden and his siblings, according to police. Social workers from the county and the private agency dismissed the girl’s concerns, according to the lawsuit.

In June 2010, Aiden was taken to the hospital in a coma. He suffered severe abdominal damage, a skull fracture and brain injuries.

Young and Kirk pleaded guilty to child abuse. Young was placed on probation; Kirk is serving an eight-year sentence at La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona.

Aiden's father, Brian Fassett, regained custody of the children and moved the family to West Virginia. Aiden, he said, is blind in one eye and was left mentally disabled.

“My daughter is just old enough so that she'll never forget, but she walks around with it locked inside,” Fassett said.

The former board president of Joshua Foster Family Agency and county officials declined to comment.

More than 59,000 children end up in California’s foster care system because of abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Most are placed with relatives. The rest are sent to group homes or individual foster homes, which are either privately operated or run by the state and county.

Demand for these homes far outstrips availability, and it’s not uncommon for social workers to make more than 100 calls before a vacant bed is secured, according to Los Angeles County officials.

The money that foster parents receive — about $748 a month in California, or $25 a day — is for the children’s living expenses. The homes are not meant to be profit-making enterprises, but it is the sole income for some parents.

In the 1980s, California relied heavily on group homes, some of which cost taxpayers up to $25,800 a year per child.

Legislators reasoned that charities, churches and community groups would be more efficient and nimble than the government bureaucracy. They gave them the power to recruit foster parents and hire their own social workers.

The law provides about $1,870 a month to care for each child and to cover administrative costs. The foster family receives about 40% of that amount, and the rest goes to the agency to pay for social workers, office rent and other expenses.

The legislation, in some ways, worked as planned, attracting community groups to join the foster system.

Gays and lesbians helped form the highly regarded Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency. Casey Family Programs, a respected philanthropy for disadvantaged children, created another.

It didn’t take long, however, for some entrepreneurs to figure out the money-making potential of foster care.

Craig Woods, a former carpet and hair products salesman, started United Care in 1989 in a storefront on Crenshaw Boulevard.

Business was good. Nationwide, the crack epidemic had left tens of thousands of children without safe homes.

Woods filled United Care’s board of directors with friends and relatives. Mitchell Preston, the board president, was caught selling stolen televisions at swap meets and was sent to prison for the crime.

United Care grew into one of the largest agencies in Los Angeles County, recently caring for nearly 800 children each year. It received $5.5 million in taxpayer money in 2009, according to the agency’s tax return. Woods, who declined to comment for this article, received a salary that year of $175,000.

The currency of the system is children; the key to getting more children — and earning more money — is finding willing foster parents.

Woods pursued the goal with entrepreneurial zeal. He held contests for foster parents who were offered the chance to win a cruise to Ensenada if they recommended new applicants, according to the agency’s newsletter.

Amid criticism that his selection process was too lax, Woods told county officials in 2010 that as many as half the foster parents he recruited had committed crimes. He told them other agencies had similar problems.

Foster parents are barred from having convictions for felonies or certain misdemeanors. But state regulators can waive that rule — and often do.

One of the people recruited by Woods' agency was Kiana Barker, a convicted thief. Her live-in boyfriend was a convicted robber. They shared a run-down bungalow on Gage Avenue in South Los Angeles.

Barker, who had lived in the neighborhood all her life, had at least three complaints lodged against her on the county’s child abuse hotline, including a case of severe neglect.

Among the children sent into her care was an almond-eyed girl named Viola Vanclief, whose mother was a crack addict and prostitute living in a board and care facility for the mentally ill.

One day in 2010, after hours of heavy drinking, Barker burst into Viola's room and beat her, according to a witness’ court testimony. When Barker was pulled away, the little girl was on the floor, struggling to breathe, the witness said.

Viola died a day later at the age of 2, her body covered in red and purple bruises.

State officials slapped Woods’ agency with what they said was the maximum penalty — a $150 fine. Barker was convicted of second-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing.

“Who does this to a child?” asked Viola's mother, Olivia.

Olivia Van Clief prays during a church service at the Faith Miracle Holiness Church.. Olivia's daughter, Viola, died while under the foster care of Kiana Barker. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Olivia Vanclief prays during a church service at the Faith Miracle Holiness Church. Olivia's daughter, Viola, died while under the foster care of Kiana Barker. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The case provides an example of how poorly monitored and passive California’s private foster care system has become. The system generates reams of documents and data, but often fails to capture the true condition of children. Action or punishment is rare.

Each week, a social worker from United Care, Elizabeth Valencia, was scheduled to visit Barker's house.

State rules prohibit social workers from monitoring more than 15 foster children at a time. Valencia oversaw more than that number, having three jobs at different foster family agencies, according to state records and interviews with co-workers. Valencia did not respond to requests for comment.

Half of the social workers at United Care, who made about $40,000 a year, also worked at another agency, according to state records.

The Times collected all available work records and found that at least 14 foster agencies in Los Angeles County had workers with multiple full-time jobs. The accounting is incomplete because many of the approximately 45 private agencies in the county failed to file the required staffing reports.

Viola’s file contains hundreds of pages. Included are numerous reports from Valencia, who notes that she went to Barker’s home every week. Her reports repeatedly state that Viola appeared “to be in overall good health and happy.”

Even as Valencia was praising Barker, complaints to the child abuse hotline mounted.

County social workers substantiated one complaint out of six logged against Barker and her boyfriend. The details have not been released because of confidentiality laws.

County social workers were also scheduled to visit the home once a month. They too recommended that Barker adopt Viola, according to the file.

Kiana Barker faces murder charges for the death of 2-year-old Viola Van Clief. Despite a record of violence, Van Clief was placed with Barker by United Care, a private foster care agency. Barker's boyfriend, James "Big Bird, " Julian, right, was also charged. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kiana Barker faces murder charges for the death of 2-year-old Viola Vanclief. Despite Barker's record of violence, Vanclief was placed with Barker by United Care, a private foster care agency. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Completing the adoption would have resulted in a $10,000 payment to United Care and extra money each month for Barker.

In the push to find homes for children, county social workers say problems are often overlooked.

Pamela Payton said her 14 years as a case worker with the county Department of Children and Family Services taught her that “workers would just skim the surface while assessing the home. If they came to know something of concern, they wouldn't make the report or act on it. ”

"It was clear that DCFS didn't want to lose the inventory of foster and group homes," Payton said.

By two key measures used by national child welfare groups, California's privatized system is worse than its government-run counterpart, according to a Times analysis of three years of data ending in 2011. Youths in privately operated homes remained in the foster system 11% longer than those in other types of homes — 378 days compared to 341 days.

Those children were 15% more likely to move from one home to another. The most egregious cases — youths who shuttled through five homes or more — occurred three times more often under the care of the private agencies.

Every call to a child abuse hotline, and the subsequent investigative report, is logged into a $1-billion computer system — one of the largest in the state. The federal government requires complete information on abuse complaints for the state to receive billions of dollars in funding.

Each year, California must show that 99.68% of its foster children are free of abuse — and it always meets that benchmark.

But to hit their end-of-the-year deadline, state officials report investigative results for only three-quarters of the year. State and federal officials acknowledge that the results are incomplete, but have not acted to correct the problem.

Data for a full year is eventually published on a website run by UC Berkeley. That tally shows the state has failed since 2007 to meet the federal benchmark for abuse.

To simplify report writing, the state does not require that all the questions be answered — including one asking whether a foster parent was responsible for the abuse or neglect. Without that detail, state regulators have no way to identify agencies with patterns of abuse.

From 1998 to 2000, there were widely publicized cases of foster children who were killed or severely injured, but the Berkeley website shows no reports of children being harmed anywhere in the state.

In the terabytes of information on foster care abuses is the investigative report on Viola Vanclief.

Olivia learned of her daughter’s death in a phone call from a county social worker.

"I promised [Viola] that it was going to be me and her against the world," Olivia said. "The world won."

Viola was buried beneath the low hum of high-voltage lines skirting a cemetery along Central Avenue in Carson where Jazz pianist Hampton Hawes is buried.

Viola’s grave, located near a drainage ditch, remains unmarked.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Grass grows over Viola Vanclief's unmarked grave in Lincoln Memorial Park. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Contact the reporter

Follow Garrett Therolf (@gtherolf) on Twitter

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Times database editor Doug Smith and data analyst Brian Kim contributed to this report. Lily Mihalik and Evan Wagstaff produced this project for the web.

More from the series: A turnaround in Tennessee |Scars of abuse

How we did the data analysis:

The Times analysis looked at 1,147,133 reports of abuse from Oct. 1, 2008, through Sept. 30, 2011. The data were taken from the state's electronic Child Welfare Services/Case Management System, which contains abuse complaints entered by county case workers.

Because the data contained significant omissions and inaccuracies in identifying perpetrators, The Times used three methods to calculate abuse rates.

Abuses committed by foster parents are identified in the system by two data fields. One is used to report abuse to the federal government; the other is used by UC Berkeley researchers to tabulate abuse for a public report.

The Times used both fields to compare abuse rates in the traditional state-run foster homes and those in the privatized system.

The two fields, however, often contained conflicting, ambiguous or erroneous information.

Both calculations showed that rate of abuse committed by foster parents was higher in privately run homes than in government-run homes, but the margins differed considerably from 29% to 54%.

The Times then tried to calculate abuse rates by determining the number of substantiated abuse cases that occurred while a child was in foster care.

But in 90% of all cases, county case workers neglected to record the start and end dates of the alleged abuse, making it impossible to determine if the child was living in the foster home, their family's home or some other location at the time the abuse occurred.

Due to that lack of information, The Times decided to ascribe substantiated abuse cases to whatever was the child's home when the complaint was made.

There were more than 22,300 abuse cases reported while a child was living in a foster home.

Most of those cases occurred within the first two days of a child's placement. The Times eliminated all of those based on the assumption that they represented delayed reports of abuse that occurred in a previous location.

The resulting 2,596 cases were further reduced to 992 involving the most serious allegations — physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

Private agencies accounted for 416 of those, compared to 113 in state run homes. Because private agencies had about three times as many client days, The Times calculated that children in private homes were about a third more likely to be victims of abuse.