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Series Details Abuse in California’s Foster Care System
December 26, 2013
The Los Angeles Times took an impressive deep dive into the problems plaguing California’s foster care system last week, detailing the extent to which perverse incentives and a lack of monitoring among private agencies overseeing foster homes has led to disturbing patterns of child abuse.
Drawing on data of more than 1 million hotline-reported abuse investigations, Times’ reporter Garrett Therolf found that children in foster homes overseen by private agencies are one-third more likely to be physically, mentally or sexually abused than children in homes overseen by the state.
“Today, the state’s private foster family system – the largest in the nation – has become more expensive and more dangerous than the government-run homes it has largely replaced,” Therolf wrote in the A1 lead story of a three-part series that filled as many pages of the paper’s Dec. 18 news report.
California’s privatization of its foster care system, approved in the 1980s, was supposed to save money and improve the lot of the children in its care. But it hasn’t worked out that way, the Times explained. Since private agencies are paid a per-child fee, the system offers financial incentives for private agencies to place as many children as possible in homes, and to minimize costs associated with managing those homes.
Placing more kids in more homes requires more foster parents. But since demand for suitable foster parents far exceeds the existing supply, some agencies have responded by lowering the bar for potential foster parents to the point of recruiting convicted criminals – the state has given 5,300 waivers to those with criminal convictions, the Times reports. Some of the results have been heartbreaking. Therolf recounted a particularly horrific case from Los Angeles’ United Care agency, whose entrepreneurial founder “told county officials in 2010 that as many as half the foster parents he recruited had committed crimes.”
Two-year-old Viola Vanclief was placed in the run-down South L.A. home of Kiana Barker and her boyfriend, both convicted criminals, even though three complaints of abuse had already been made against Barker on a county hotline. Barker would go on to savagely beat Viola in an alcohol-fueled rage in 2010; the girl died the following day. United Care, responsible for the placement and monitoring the home, was subsequently fined $150, the maximum allowed by the state. Before the incident, the agency had recommended Kiana adopt Viola, which would’ve netted United Care a $10,000 payment. It’s not hard to see how existing incentives were aligned against Viola’s best interests.
Therolf reported that four children have died from abuse or neglect over the last five years in L.A. County; in the same period, no kids in government-run homes died.
In the second of three stories, the Times’ told the similarly heart-wrenching story of 4-year-old Jada, whose foster mother opted to punish the girl with scalding-hot water, causing second- and third-degree burns over two-thirds of her body. Again, despite the foster mother’s history of mental illness, criminal record, and multiple abuse complaints, private agencies repeatedly green-lighted her as a foster parent. Jada has since been adopted by another mother who, describing the girl, told Therolf, “The play is no longer there.”
If high demand, bad incentives and low thresholds for approving foster parents are creating conditions in which abuse can proliferate, then the breakdown in monitoring perpetuates the problem. Concerns often go unreported, with private and public agencies fearful of losing more homes amidst existing shortages. And the Times said monitoring lapses aren’t limited to private agencies:
In the push to find homes for children, county social workers say problems are often overlooked. Pamela Payton said her 14 years as a case worker with the county Department of Children and Family Services taught her that “workers would just skim the surface while assessing the home. If they came to know something of concern, they wouldn't make the report or act on it.”
Tennessee’s revamped program gets it right
Other states have found new ways to attack the incentives problem in California. In part three of last week’s series, Therolf spotlighted Tennessee, a state that previously had one of the worst foster care programs in the country, as an example of a state that is now much closer to getting it right.
Prompted by a 2001 lawsuit, Tennessee scuttled its system of paying private agencies a per-child fixed fee and instead pays private agencies hefty bonuses for good outcomes (foster children reunited with their parents or adopted), and exacts stiff penalties for bad outcomes (foster children falling out of placements within one year). Therolf said Tennessee’s new approach is paying off:
The incentive system has pushed agencies to monitor themselves for abuse problems and move children out of foster care into permanent homes as quickly as possible. Tennessee is now first in the nation for successfully finding permanent homes for children who previously spent more than two years in foster care. California, in comparison, ranks 27th.
Improving California’s rank will take time and systemic change. But there’s already evidence Therolf’s reporting is having impact. While the Times’ ran the series in print on Wednesday, Dec. 18, Therolf posted a story online that very evening that reported L.A. County officials were “launching a review of the criminal clearance process for foster parents selected by private agencies” in response. A county official also said the state could do more to shorten the amount of time it takes to license state-run homes, which don’t have the same rates of abuse private-agency homes do.
It remains to be seen whether the reporting catalyzes statewide changes in how private agencies are allowed to recruit parents and oversee foster homes. But in the meantime, kudos to the Times for allocating scarce newsroom resources on a deeply reported overview of a system that’s failing some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Image by nojhan via Flickr