Friday, February 5, 2010

Children pay the price of foster care panic: Trish Ploehn throws family preservation under the bus in L.A.

I suppose it was inevitable that Trish Ploehn would cave.

Ploehn is one of a long line of lackluster leaders of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Only one, her immediate predecessor, David Sanders, was able to stand up to what is probably the worst governing body in America when it comes to child welfare issues, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, or, as it should properly be called, "The B.S."

So when the Los Angeles Times started running story after story about deaths of children "known to the system" it was only a matter of time before there would be a story like the one in the Times today, the one that ran under the headline "L.A. County will no longer strive to reunite families."

This is one more tragedy for Los Angeles' children. Study after study has shown that in typical cases, not the extreme horror stories that Ploehn now is using to drive policy, children fare better in their own homes even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. As for fatalities, as I noted on this Blog previously, the former child welfare reporter, and now media reporter for the Times, James Rainey wrote last fall that

The 14 kids in the system who died of abuse or neglect last year was higher than any of us should accept. But when the county was pulling many more children from homes a decade ago, foster care deaths peaked at 20 in one year.

Fatalities rose again, to 17, in 2009, but that's still lower than when DCFS was taking far more children. Ploehn herself has made this point, and she vouched for these programs' safety. So was she dissembling when she said it was safe before, or is she dissembling when she says it's unsafe now?


There's one other pesky detail about what Ploehn announced in the Times today: If the story is accurate, what she is doing happens to be illegal.

It was a weak law when it was passed in 1980, and it was weakened further in 1997, but federal law still requires child welfare agencies to make "reasonable efforts" to keep families together. The law is widely ignored, never enforced, and filled with loopholes. Contrary to years of demagogic claims by the "take the child and run" crowd, the law never required leaving a child in an unsafe home, and it never required trying to keep every family together. But simply declaring you're not going to try to keep any family together violates that law.

Ploehn also announced that a lot of workers now doing other things will be transferred into child abuse investigations. She said it would lower caseloads. Don't bet on it. Further abandoning family preservation will only further overload the system – all those newly-reassigned caseworkers will be chasing after all the new cases - making it even less likely that they will find the next child in real danger. Ploehn has just made L.A. County less safe for all vulnerable children.


I say further abandoning because L.A. actually gave up on family preservation years ago. The real measure of family preservation is entries into care, the number of children taken over the course of a year. That number reached its low point in 2004, then went up sharply, and only started declining again recently. Even in 2008, Los Angeles took away children at a higher rate than most big cities. Details are on our website. And the Times stories last year almost certainly set off a foster-care panic, a sudden surge in entries of children into foster care, a phenomenon well-documented by the competing Los Angeles Daily News.

Ploehn has sought to divert attention from the entry numbers by focusing exclusively on the number of children in foster care on any given day - a "snapshot" number that can fall for all sorts of reasons unrelated to family preservation, such as adoptions and lots of children "aging out" with no place to go.

The snapshot number also doesn't capture a key feature of foster-care panic: churning; children taken away and then returned very quickly, but much the worse for the experience, before the "snapshot" is taken.

So what happens next? If the pattern in other cities and states holds:

  • A further surge in children torn from everyone they know and love
  • More children bouncing from foster home to foster home, emerging years later, unable to love or trust anyone.
  • More children abused in foster care itself, a problem for which Los Angeles County has been notorious over the years.

As for the fatalities which prompted Ploehn to abandon family preservation – experience from the rest of the country suggests, those fatalities will increase, as workers have less time to find children in real danger.

But Trish Ploehn probably has fended off The B.S. for another year. Soon, though, she'll have to come up with something else to keep them at bay.

Wait, I know: Sanders' signature accomplishment was finally closing down MacLaren Children's Center, a hellhole of an institution so bad it actually has a support group for survivors. Perhaps Ploehn can reopen it.