Thursday, May 13, 2010

More casualties of the Los Angeles foster care panic?

On May 6, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks wrote a very good column about Candie Sampson, an aunt who stepped forward to care for her sister's children in a time of crisis only to have those children torn away by the county Department of Children and Family Services.

The four children had been taken from their mother because of allegations of drug use and domestic violence. They were placed with a grandmother who died suddenly last month.

It was Sampson who told DCFS about the grandmother's death, and it was Sampson who brought the children to her own small apartment. According to Banks, Sampson "has an MBA, a university job, a construction-worker husband and a 1-year-old son. She spent part of her teen years in foster care. She and her sister didn't meet their father until they were adults and found him on Facebook."

Banks continues:
She bought each child a bed from IKEA. "My husband assembled them that night," she said. Two days later, a social worker came by for an "assessment." Sampson opened her life to prying eyes.

"I informed social services that I want for the kids to remain with my family," she said. And I informed [the social worker] that my husband has a criminal background, due to an addiction in his past. … We completed all the paperwork, provided letters of character references and went to be fingerprinted in less than 24 hours."

Then she waited -- not very patiently, I might add -- through three weeks of "no one talking to me," she said.

She had no standing in the system; the children's stay was considered an "extended visitation" not a "placement," social workers said.

Her apartment wasn't big enough, with just two bedrooms for seven people. And her husband needed a "criminal clearance."

She began looking for a bigger place and pushing the children's social worker to seek a waiver that would clear her husband, who has not used drugs in six years, she said.

"I call her every day all day," Sampson told me. "I leave messages and do not get return calls. I have to keep calling and hope that she answers the phone."

Sampson had spent years as a paid advocate for disabled college students. In that world, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the students get services they need.

In this world of caseworkers and court orders, the squeaky wheel just gets extra scrutiny.
Sampson got a Monday-morning call from a DCFS supervisor, who promised to keep her in the loop, she said. Then she refused to take Sampson's calls.

By Tuesday night, three of the kids were gone. The 5- and 7-year-olds were placed together, and the 4-year-old went to a separate home, she said. He was crying when he left; she had to coax him out of his hiding place under the bed.

"The social workers won't tell me where they are," Sampson said. They did tell her to have the 14-year-old ready on Thursday to go.


Why would DCFS be so cruel to the children? Banks thinks it may be the very fact that Sampson kept pushing so impatiently to keep them. That may well be part of it. Whether they are birth parents, kinship parents or foster parents workers for child welfare agencies commonly like their parents docile, groveling and, above all, "compliant."

More than 20 years ago, when I was writing my book about child welfare, a Los Angeles lawyer referred to people like Sampson as "flunking the attitude test."

If that's what happened here, it would make her case poignantly similar to that of Jonathan Reid, taken from his mother Debra in part because she was an outspoken community advocate with an in-your-face style, according to a comprehensive account of the case in the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles. (I've been unable to find the superbly reported story, by Michael Gougis, online, but I have a copy.)

One can only hope the parallels end there, however. Because six weeks after he was taken, Jonathan Reid died in foster care.


But flunking the attitude test almost certainly isn't the only reason for this tragedy. Odds are, these children are casualties of the foster-care panic encouraged by the Los Angeles Times itself.

Imagine how certain of Banks' colleagues on the Times metro staff might have written this story had the children been left with Sampson and something had gone wrong. Every caseworker knows full well that such a story probably would read like this:

A [age and gender of child] is dead only weeks after the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services exploited a legal loophole to allow the child and three siblings to live in the desperately overcrowded home of an uncle who once had been convicted on drug charges.

The death comes at a time when the beleaguered DCFS already is under intense scrutiny in the wake of a series of deaths of children previously known to the agency. The deaths have raised questions about DCFS' emphasis on family preservation.

(In fact, there has been no "series" of deaths, but that hasn't stopped the Times from making the claim.)

That's a key reason why entries into foster care in Los Angeles have soared in the months since the Times started writing real stories very much like the hypothetical story above. And that's almost certainly why, having already endured separation from their mother and the death of their grandmother, the nieces and nephews of Candie Sampson now are separated from a loving aunt and from each other.

No, this does not mean caseworkers are right when they claim to be "damned if they do and damned if they don't." On the contrary, the caseworker who tore apart the Sampson family will face no sanction at all for doing so. The worst she may face is a column that does not even name her or him. In contrast, had this caseworker left the children in that home and tragedy followed, there is an excellent chance the worker would have been scapegoated by her bosses at DCFS. When it comes to taking away children, you're only damned if you don't.

If anyone at the Los Angeles Times really wants to know why these children are enduring such suffering, they could start by looking in their own newsroom.