Child Welfare System Must Grow Up

Tuesday, October 14, 2003
By Wendy McElroy,3566,99942,00.html

Monday, September 29, 2003 –
Too many children have been unnecessarily placed in foster care because of a “perverse financial incentive” that encourages local governments to earn money by bringing youngsters into the system, a new state report says.

The study by the California Department of Social Services also says too much emphasis has been placed on investigating whether parents abused or neglected their children while not enough has been done to help families overcome their problems. “Over a period of years, the original vision for supporting and healing families through the child welfare system has deteriorated into an adversarial and coercive approach,” DSS Director Rita Saenz said. David Sanders, who took over in March as head of the troubled Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, said experts have estimated that as many as half of the county’s foster children could have been left in their parents’ care if the appropriate services had been provided.

A study by a child welfare think tank released earlier this year found that the government spends an average of $65,000 to $85,000 a year to house and educate a foster child in a group home. The total costs are staggering, authors of the report wrote, noting that the direct costs of child abuse and neglect nationwide are estimated at $25 billion a year while indirect costs such as juvenile delinquency, adult criminality and lost productivity to society total $95 billion. In response, the Child Welfare Services Stakeholders Group, a body of 60 child-welfare experts formed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000, has proposed an “ambitious and far-reaching overhaul” of the state’s child-welfare system. Andrew Bridge, managing director of child-welfare reform programs at The Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, said one of the most basic problems with the system is restrictions that provide money only when a child enters foster care.

“The county will only continue to receive funding for the period it keeps the child in its care. You can’t run a system that is based on a buck-a-head for as long as you can keep the child,” Bridge said. The state report said California has 13 percent of the nation’s total child population and 20 percent of its foster children. More than 700,000 children come into contact with the child-welfare system annually statewide. About 77 percent of those in foster care were removed from their homes for neglect. In Los Angeles County, more than 160,000 children came into contact with the system last year.

Nearly 80 percent were involved because of neglect. More than 91,000 children are in foster homes statewide. In the county, the $1.4 billion DCFS budget pays to provide services to 75,000 children in the system or living in adoptive homes. Of those, nearly 30,000 actually live in foster homes. The stakeholders’ report recommends the Department of Social Services seek approval from the federal government for more flexible use of its $3.7 billion annual child-welfare budget so more money can be spent on services to help keep families together. Congress is expected to take up legislation next year dealing with reforms in how the system is funded. The stakeholders also recommended that the state improve its method of contracting with public and private foster care agencies.

Of the county’s 30,000 children in foster homes, an average of 6 percent to 7 percent are abused and neglected, a rate among the highest in the nation.

“The safety issue is such a big one,” Sanders said. “Los Angeles County is way out of line with the rest of the country. You just have kids who are being abused after we have supposedly put them in a safer environment.”

Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights in Los Angeles, said the report outlines the “only realistic path toward achieving stable, secure homes for our children.”

“The toughest job is still ahead in terms of providing a step-bystep plan for achieving these goals,” Spire said.

Troy Anderson, (213) 974-8985




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