For months, Bea Watts waited as the Los Angeles County child protection agency failed to pay her more than $4,500 for taking care of two children in her foster care.
As bills piled up, she issued an ultimatum: The Department of Children and Family Services would have to take the children back, she said, unless it paid her by March 1.
DCFS finally paid Watts, a Simi Valley resident, but her experience wasn’t unique.
Thousands of regular assistance checks from DCFS failed to reach recipients like Watts after the agency implemented a new computer system in October. Because of glitches in the conversion, the department for several months failed to pay foster care parents, young people living on extended foster care assistance, group homes and others.
When The Times first reported the problem in January, DCFS officials said approximately 700 payments were missed. That number eventually grew to almost 4,500, DCFS figures show.
Those numbers don’t include glitches with issuing the vouchers that people on assistance fill out and return in order to receive payment. In December alone, almost 5,000 vouchers for payment — a substantial chunk of the agency’s 15,351 cases — weren’t returned to the agency, according to numbers provided by the department.
DCFS officials estimate that a little more than half of those vouchers weren’t issued correctly in the first place.
In January — the worst month — nearly 10% of all foster care payments were skipped.
The agency said that it has since cleared the backlog, which peaked in the winter. Officials said that there are still payments missed each month — though not nearly as many as just after the computer system change — but that it isn’t taking DCFS as long to make good on those skipped checks.
One former foster child, Myeisha Jackson, 21, who depended on the payments, said she was kicked out of her apartment for failing to make rent. A group home manager said she had to borrow thousands of dollars from friends to make payroll. A large foster family agency was owed money for months — as much as $1 million, county officials said.
Documents obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act show the agency’s foster care hotline was swamped with phone calls reporting issues with payments. At the height of the problem, the county more than quadrupled the number of staffers working the phones, the documents show.
Richard Pugh, president of the Ventura County Foster Parent Assn., provides foster care to children for both Ventura and L.A. counties. Pugh said that he didn’t receive his November and December checks until February, and that he spent hours on the phone to get paid.
“It was just chaos,” Pugh said. “We’ve all been having problems.”
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors in February called for an inquiry into the “root cause” of the problem, saying that missing payments might be “more widespread than known.” The board also asked for “a plan to distribute all back pay by March 14.”
DCFS acting Director Brandon Nichols said the missed-payments issue has possibly consumed more of his time than any other since he became head of the department in February. He said that he has dedicated extraordinary resources to solving the problem, that the department has “burnt staff out” working on the issue, and that he is dismayed by reports that people suffered hardships because they weren’t paid.
However, Nichols said that people going as long as two months without receiving their payments were “rare exceptions.” When a payment is skipped, a report is generated and a manual check is cut, Nichols said. Most of the time the payment is made within 30 days of the initial payroll, he said.
The problem was most severe around January and February, Nichols said. DCFS officials were prioritizing extreme cases in which people claimed dire situations, such as impending evictions. Officials even hand-delivered checks in those situations, he said.
He also said the spike in vouchers not being submitted was caused primarily by a mix-up in the system involving foster family agencies, which oversee and are responsible for paying some of the county’s foster care parents. Rather than being issued to the agencies, the vouchers were sent to the foster parents, according to Nichols. The agencies were owed money but still paid those parents, he said.
But Nichols acknowledged that the system conversion caused some people not to receive vouchers for payment, though he said it was a rare occurrence.
Exactly how many people went unpaid for longer than 30 days is also unclear. Nichols said DCFS met the March 14 deadline for back-pay set by the Board of Supervisors.
For the department, publicity over missing payments comes at a sensitive time. DCFS officials are in the early stages of a major campaign funded by the state to recruit more foster care parents and tackle a countywide shortage in foster beds.
Nichols said he worries that media coverage of the missed payments will impede the crucial effort. He said he hadn’t heard of any foster parents saying they wouldn’t provide care in L.A. County again because of the missed-payments issue.
“I have not heard anyone say, ‘I am done doing this because people aren’t paying me on time,’” Nichols said.
But Watts said her experience made her begin to question whether to undertake the difficult task of being a foster parent for L.A. County children again.
Now, she has reached a decision.
“It’s really sad,” Watts said, “but it’s my last time fostering with L.A.”