Thursday, March 25, 2010

LA’s feeble steps to curb abuse in foster care: Two big cities do it better

So, now that a Los Angeles County child has died in a foster home overseen by a private agency with a poor track record, the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is likely to terminate its contact with said agency and move the 216 children now placed in that agency's foster homes. There's just one problem:

Where will they put the children?

In California, private Foster Family Agencies, or FFAs, were created precisely because county child welfare agencies weren't able to find enough foster homes on their own. So, presumably, these 216 children now will be dumped on some of the other 59 FFAs in Los Angeles County. Perhaps they'll wind up with good agencies, perhaps not. But odds are we won't know until it's too late. Because Los Angeles County has no mechanism to monitor FFAs to see if they're any good or not.

That should come as no surprise. When you take away too many children you wind up begging for beds, and beggars can't be choosers. The standards for foster parents go down and the reasons to ignore warning signs about abuse go up.

So now the county Board of Supervisors (the B.S.) is doing what it does best: preen and posture. They're promising to reconstitute a previously-disbanded "investigations unit" to actually keep track of instances of abuse in foster care and terminate contracts when, as a Los Angeles Times story puts it, "problems pile up." In other words, real, live foster children become the equivalent of canaries in a coal mine. When enough of them are hurt, then you terminate the contract.


Two other big cities have a better approach.

In New York City almost all foster care has been subcontracted to private agencies since, oh, about 1857. And for almost all of those 150+ years since, most of them did a lousy job. It was only in the last decade or so that the City's public child welfare agency, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) got serious about monitoring quality at these agencies, and getting rid of the poor performers. The city now has a sophisticated system of inspections and grading, and issues regular, public report cards. Several agencies have been closed.

The report cards measure more than whether foster children survived the experience. They look at the full spectrum of issues relevant to quality of care, including maintaining contact with birth parents, services to families, health care, education and, when children really can't be reunited, moving toward adoption. Although the agencies themselves claim to be pleased, (which is not a good sign – if they're too happy, the standards are too low) a recent article in a journal, the New York Nonprofit Press, revealed enough grumbling to indicate the system is a step toward real accountability. And an expert I consulted who is a longtime leader in reform efforts in New York and cares a great deal about keeping families together also says it's a good system.

The state-run system in Illinois also totally revamped its relationship with private agencies as part of its comprehensive child welfare reform efforts. Independent court-appointed monitors have found that the Illinois reforms improved child safety. In fact, it worked so well that one of the key architects of that reform was brought to L.A. as a consultant – and then ignored.

An important part of the reforms in both cities are other changes which revamp financial incentives for private agencies. In New York and Chicago, they can't just warehouse children in foster care day after day and watch the per diem payments roll in.

Why could New York City and Illinois do what L.A. can't? Simple. They stopped taking away so many children.


Los Angeles can't really control its FFAs because in Los Angeles it's a "seller's market" – as long as Los Angeles is desperate for beds for all those children it's taking needlessly, it can't afford to shut down substandard FFAs. (And the reverse actually could become a problem as well: If DCFS starts shutting down FFAs solely based on whether a case they oversee makes the front page, you could wind up closing down a good one, and leaving in business a bad one, where the children are hurt but don't actually die.)

The rate of child removal in Los Angeles County is 30 percent higher than the rate in New York City, double the statewide rate in Illinois and quadruple the rate in metropolitan Chicago. By keeping entries into foster care lower than the rate in Los Angeles, these places improved their bargaining position with private agencies.

The New York accomplishments do need an asterisk of sorts. The Commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, deserves a lot of credit for putting the accountability measures in place and sticking with them. But his increasingly-regressive approach to many other child welfare issues, an approach that contributed to a surge in entries into care – though still not nearly as bad as in L.A. – risks putting these measures in jeopardy.

So if what passes for leadership in Los Angeles County is serious about preventing more foster care tragedies, they might want to try looking at what Chicago and New York are doing – and actually paying attention this time.