Lawsuit may help foster kids
Foster youth criticize foster parents and social workers

By Sharine Xuan, 15, South Pasadena High School
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Illustration by Emma Guerard, 15, Venice HS

It’s really scary when the government tries to play mom and dad because the foster care system is seriously messed up.

There are 51,499 children in the Los Angeles County foster care system, with more than 3000 social workers, making it the largest dependency system in the country. One report after another has revealed shocking problems in the system: abuse of children, dangerous facilities, financial mismanagement and lack of supervision by social workers.

The Los Angeles Daily Journal investigated 58 lawsuits filed on behalf of Los Angeles County’s foster children between June 2000 and August 2001. The article by Cheryl Romo told of unspeakable crimes committed against these children –death, rape, sexual assault, beatings, forced medication and false imprisonment. Here’s a look at three cases:

• Cathy was only 10 when she was placed in the foster home of a man who abused her, but she didn’t tell anyone. After staying there four months, she was moved to a new foster family, which asked her to be removed because of "difficult behavior." At her next foster placement, she told her social worker that she had been sexually abused "four to six times" by the first foster father. By then, Cathy was suicidal.

The police questioned her former foster father, who admitted to putting on gloves to "examine" Cathy’s genital area because she complained of vaginal irritation. He said he was given permission to do so by his employer, Rosemary’s Foster Care Agency, which Rosemary’s denied. The Department of Children and Family Services investigated Cathy’s case, but weren’t sure if his "examinations" were sexual abuse. Cathy is now doing better in another foster placement, while her lawyer Steve Beltran is in the process of suing the county, the agency, and the foster parents, who were "decertified" by the foster agency.

• Dora, Omar, and Solomon were beaten regularly with a belt and clothes hanger for over two years while they stayed in a foster home. The three siblings were covered with scars from their foster father’s beatings and the foster father threatened to kill them if they disclosed what he had done. Despite his threats, the children finally told their social workers. Two of them have since been reunited with their parents, and the third is still in foster care, while their attorney is suing the county on their behalf.

• Jamal was living with his grandmother when he was put on "psychiatric hold." That’s when you are put into a psychiatric ward because you are a threat to yourself or others. After two days at the College Hospital in Cerritos, the staff determined him to be no longer a threat to himself or to others. Hospital staff then notified his social worker to come pick him up.

When Jamal’s social workers came, Jamal told them that he didn’t want to live with his grandmother anymore. The social worker gave Jamal a choice of going directly to McClaren Children’s Center or staying at the psychiatric ward no more than three days while a foster family was located. Rather than going to McClaren, which is like a prison for foster youth, he agreed to stay at the hospital for three days and then be taken directly to a foster home. He waited for 18 days while hospital staff contacted his social worker 14 times asking that he be picked up. But no one came. When they finally did come, it was to take Jamal to McClaren Hall, instead of the foster home. Jamal, a high school student, now lives with a foster family. His attorney is suing the county.

County says abuses are rare

Jose Parada, who recruits and trains foster parents for the Department of Children and Family Services, said he could not comment specifically on these cases, but said that most youth in the system are not abused. Parada said, "I think we are doing a good job of protecting children, that’s part of the reason why I come to work every day. There’s always going be a few bad apples. There’s good people and also bad people. Generally speaking I think we are doing a good job."

He added that improvements are needed, suggesting that the county hire more social workers to reduce caseloads and offer more training for social workers and foster parents.

Having too few social workers might be one reason that the foster care system is in bad shape, but the problems don’t end there.

One example of a dangerous facility is McClaren Hall. McClaren Hall is often known as the "place of last resort." It is designed to be a temporary emergency shelter, where kids should stay for two weeks or a month at most. Yet children are often kept for weeks, months, however long it takes their social workers to find them a placement. According to a Los Angeles Times article from February 2001, at McClaren Hall, "children are drugged with adult psychotropic medications rather than given the more therapeutic mental health services they badly need." It is a prison-like environment where kids are often abused, sometimes by other residents, because of poor control and management.

State report shows financial problems

The state controller’s office, which is in charge of making sure that tax money is being spent responsibly, found big problems when it looked into the Los Angeles County foster care system’s financial records. In a March report, Kathleen Connell, the state controller, stated that if the system does not meet federal standards, the state could lose up to $5 million in federal funding for the first year.

Other findings:
• Almost 1 percent of children in foster care are abducted each year.

• The county can’t locate foster children 8 percent of the time, resulting in late payment to their caretakers.

• One foster care agency was overpaid $550,000 because the county doesn’t know how to watch its money.

Research by the UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research found that in 2000 in L.A.’s foster care system:
• Children are four times more likely to be abused than in any other system in the country.

• Less than 20 percent of youth were reunified with parents within a year, far below the federal standard of 76 percent.

• Only 4 percent of youth were adopted within two years, which does not meet the federal standard of 32 percent.

Resources for foster youth

Job development services for foster youth
(213) 738-2700
Runaway adolescent project
(323) 466-7776