Just before my 7th birthday, a police car rolled up alongside me as I was running an early morning errand for my mother. An officer leaned out the window and asked if my name was Andy. He then asked me to get into the car, and we drove the short distance back to the squalid motel where my mother and I were staying. Leaving me in the car, the officer jumped out to join a woman who was arguing on the sidewalk with my screaming mother.
By then, my mother and I had been evicted from a string of apartments. We’d gone on to live with friends, then with strangers before finally getting a room in the motel. At night, we ventured outside, eating from dumpsters and trying to hide from a pack of men that my mother’s schizophrenic delusions told her were hunting us.
I hopped from the car and tried to intervene, but I was pulled from my mother’s arms, shoved into the woman’s car and taken to MacLaren Hall — Los Angeles County’s infamous, now closed facility for children in foster care.
I spent the 11 remaining years of my childhood in the foster care system, moving from MacLaren to a loveless foster home. Good at school, I graduated from high school, attended college on a scholarship, then law school.
As hard as it would have been for me to see it that way when I was a ward of the county, I was one of the lucky few.
Children who wind up in foster care are among the most vulnerable people in society. And the system just keeps failing them. This was driven home powerfully once again recently in a confidential report commissioned by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Detailing 16 deaths of children in the system, the report documented how children were placed in homes known to be dangerous and how county workers were sometimes incompetent or failed to follow investigative procedures. It detailed numerous “systemic recurring issues” that were “in need of immediate remedial attention.”
The report described failures at the system’s front end, the point at which allegations of abuse or neglect are received, and at the back end, the point at which children are removed from their parents or guardians and placed under county care. In addition to the children who died — often very young — the report documented how many other children in foster care were in unsafe or unsuitable settings and denied opportunities to thrive.
If these latest revelations follow the usual course, advocates will demand another round of leadership changes. But that would be the wrong approach. In the last 15 years, the Department of Children and Family Services has had eight directors. It’s hard to build continuity with that sort of turnover. It would also be a mistake to suddenly descend on at-risk families, plucking children from their homes and swelling the number of children in county care.
So what should be done? The report offers a number of recommendations, but it neglects two crucial ones.
Of the deaths looked at in the report, 11 of 16 involved children 5 years old or younger. More than a third of all allegations of abuse or neglect in the county involve children in this age group, and nearly 50% of all children who enter county foster care are 5 or younger. While noting overall failures to investigate and evaluate risks, the report pays scant attention to these facts.
Very young children are particularly vulnerable. They have the fewest contacts outside of a home. They are less likely to be in school. They can be easily moved, even hidden, from investigators. They have far less ability to articulate their circumstances to others. While some procedures are in place for evaluating young children’s cases, the county ought to determine why safeguards failed and then heighten them for this age group.
One step toward addressing these problems would be for the county to move away from reliance on a single emergency response worker’s assessment and require multiple people to evaluate a child’s circumstances. The idea is something like peer reviews in medicine, which allow doctors to assess their approaches to a patient’s illness. Other foster care systems, such as in New York and Illinois, have adopted this reform successfully. Los Angeles has been tragically slow.
A second failing of the report involves service providers. It makes some important recommendations, including more effective identification, coordination and vetting of those who take in foster children. But most of its focus is on larger providers who run group homes or otherwise care for multiple children. Scant mention is made of the kind of providers most children end up with: unrelated foster parents or family members who agree to take them in. As of January, 76% of children under county care were living with unrelated foster parents (32%) or with family relatives (44%). Individual providers are responsible for feeding and clothing a child, getting a child to the doctor and school, and navigating a complex bureaucracy to ensure that a child’s needs are met.
Los Angeles County needs to take immediate steps to monitor and improve the care that children receive in individual homes. National census data indicate that households caring for foster children face huge challenges. They are larger than households without foster children, have lower levels of education and have lower incomes. They are more likely to receive public assistance. It is difficult to imagine how to improve foster care without intensely considering the situations of those who provide the bulk of it.
The county also needs to develop strategies for identifying families with the parenting qualities needed and for eliminating those who don’t have them. If a particular foster home repeatedly asks that children in its care be relocated, or if children in a particular home are more likely to fail at school or aren’t taken to doctors when they need to be, then the county should no longer place children in those homes. This seems like basic logic; yet according to the report, the county lacks the means to track outcomes from individual homes.
I know how lucky I was. I was taken into the system because I needed to be, and even if my situation was far from perfect, I was at least safe and physically provided for. But those basic elements of care shouldn’t have to depend on luck.
Andrew Bridge is executive director of the Child Welfare Initiative in Los Angeles.