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Tragedies led to big reforms in L.A.’s foster care system, but they also made the problem worse in a key way

Tragedies led to big reforms in L.A.’s foster care system, but they also made the problem worse in a key way

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Los Angeles County, with a population over 10 million, is the largest county in the country. And, while it’s no surprise that we have the largest child welfare system in the country as well, the numbers are still staggering: 35,000 open cases and an average of 12,000 calls to the child abuse hotline a month.

Over the last two decades, children in the care of The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) have experienced a number of well-documented tragic events, some at the hands of family members who were known to the department, and some while wards of the state. These events have led to investigations that highlighted systemic problems within the department, including high case loads, poor supervision, as well as poor communication within the department and with other agencies.

The upshot has been a series of reforms designed to improve the department’s ability to assess risk, and for children in out-of-home care, increase safety, reduce the time it takes to find a permanent placement, and improve well-being. The results have been modestly positive: safety is up and time to reunification is down. But the changes have also produced unintended consequences that can have serious, long-term effects on young children who wind up in care.

One of the major organizational changes has been the division of each DCFS office into two: emergency response (ER) and continuing services. When a serious call comes in, ER social workers go out to the homes and assess the situation. They receive special training in assessing the risk and, when necessary, they remove children for their safety. They become experts in connecting with and interviewing children.

Meanwhile, the department has also increased the number of forensic assessment teams around the county. These teams include therapists with special training to assess both pre-existing mental health issues as well as the emotional effects of the trauma the children have experienced.

Another key reform has increased the emphasis on placing children as quickly as possible in homes, instead of holding them in centers or group homes. When relatives are not available, children are placed first with a foster parent until a relative or a longer-term foster family is available.

As mentioned, these and other major organizational changes have had positive outcomes, particularly in meeting federal requirements.

This is all good.

But let’s shift perspectives now and consider the cumulative effect of all these changes.

It will probably surprise you to learn that over 35 percent of children in the system are under 5 years old. And the largest single group of these kids went into care before their first birthday.

For these very young children, their major life task is to accomplish three goals: to learn how to regulate their states and emotions; to connect with others; and, building on those first two steps, to explore the world and learn. These basics provide the foundation young children need to become competent, well-adjusted youth and adults.

The industrial-style changes to Los Angeles’ child welfare agency virtually ensure that the system will compound the initial traumatic loss of attachment that comes with the child’s removal from the home.

To achieve these three goals children need one critical thing: The experience of continuous, loving care from an attentive adult. This is the basis of attachment theory. Research — going back to studies of Romanian orphanages and of children separated from their parents during the Blitz — shows us that what happens to children’s cognitive and emotional development when they don’t get that loving, attentive care. The outcomes can be dire.

Viewed from this perspective, the industrial-style changes to Los Angeles’ child welfare agency virtually ensure that the system will compound the initial traumatic loss of attachment that comes with the child’s removal from the home. We’re now adding a series of losses of adults the child has connected with and come to trust: the ER social worker hands her case over to someone working in continuing services. The evaluating therapist writes her report and “terminates” with the child. And the child is removed from the home that first welcomed him when she was most in distress.

It is no wonder, then, that many of these young, vulnerable children find it difficult to form trusting relationships with adults and experience developmental and cognitive delays. In our efforts to keep children safer, we are seriously affecting their well-being.

There are other approaches we could be trying. The most promising ones involve supporting families so children can stay safely at home. Many child welfare agencies in the United States — including here in Los Angeles — are working on family support and family strengthening programs. But I saw a particularly impressive example a few years ago in Tel Aviv.

Prof. Jacquelyn McCroskey of the Suzanne Dworek-Peck USC School of Social Work led a three-year exchange program funded by the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership. In our two visits to Israel, we learned that almost 20 percent of the families are “known to the municipality,” meaning they have some involvement with child welfare. In such cases, the family and the department work with public and nonprofit organizations to develop a plan to strengthen the family. This could include a slot in a childcare or after school program or counseling, or any number of other social services. The centers that serve the families also have on-site social workers who can help as the family’s needs shift. The result is that virtually no children are removed from their home.

Here in the United States we will probably always have children who need to be protected from their families. But if we could develop a comprehensive family support system the way Israel has done, we could dramatically reduce the number of kids pulled from their homes. That would allow us to come up with more individualized approaches to caring for them and their families, and it would allow us reduce the harm we cause by helping.

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