Leaders of Los Angeles County’s embattled child welfare system believe they have solved one of their most intractable problems — finding a place for some of the most troubled foster children to lay down their heads at night.
For more than a decade, thousands of children —- unruly teenagers, premature infants and others — have spent uneasy nights in a high-rise building’s waiting room, cramped together without sufficient beds or food while social workers struggle to find them a place in foster care.
For some children, it was their first introduction to the system after being removed from their families. For others, it was just another stop after a series of failed placements. Too many returned night after night when daytime searches for new homes yielded nothing. In May, Supervisor Gloria Molina called it the county’s “dumping ground.”
A new center at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, however, promises to provide a comfortable space to spend the night and a stronger team to assess the children and more quickly find them suitable places to live.
The so-called Children’s Welcome Center offers a hot meal and a bed for every child, and it was built largely with private money from wealthy Angelenos concerned about the youth. Among the philanthropists were Cornelia Funke, the children’s author and illustrationist sometimes called the J.K. Rowling of Germany.
Dr. Astrid Heger, a prominent advocate for abused children at the hospital, helped spearhead the project. She said the center would give each child a real bed and clean pajamas. No more would they sleep under paper blankets on a bare floor.
About 700 children have already passed through the center. On a recent night, she said, “there were these kids gathered around the table in the kitchen eating a hot spaghetti meal, and we wept — not just us but the guys from facilities management had tears in their eyes.”
Molina stitched dozens of quilts for the children with her East Los Angeles sewing circle.
“This doesn’t solve everything — we are still looking for a place for children 11 years old and up — but this is a big step in the right direction,” Molina said.
Many of the attendees at the grand opening Thursday said that the center was long overdue and that the delay had been worsened by state officials who repeatedly inspected the old facilty and declared it suitable in response to complaints by county social workers and others that periodically emerged in news reports for more than a decade.
Last year, for instance, one of the social workers in the waiting room documented problems, and his statement was used by advocates in a complaint with the state.
“In some cases, the treatment that these children receive comes very close to the child abuse from which they are escaping,” said Lincoln Saul, the social worker.
But a spokesman for California Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne said his department investigated the claims and found the waiting room lawful and suitable.
Others told a different story.
Molina’s staff visited a chaotic scene, including a 9-month-old infant who had been present at a drug bust, three pregnant teenagers and recently released juvenile offenders who were getting little sleep while social workers frantically juggled a multitude of after-hours child abuse investigations. Drugs were sometimes used openly, they said.
The county auditor-controller found that some employees in the waiting room had not received the criminal clearance required to work in such a facility. And there was poor record-keeping for the children’s stays and numerous safety risks.
Molina called state director Lightbourne’s approval of the old facility “something one bureaucrat tells another bureaucrat. But I said from one mom to another mom that anyone could see that was not a healthy place for a child.”