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 print story print story |  email storylast updated: 12/7/2003

 

Up to Half of Foster Children Needlessly Placed in System

Up to half of Los Angeles County's foster children were needlessly placed in a system that is more dangerous than their own homes because of incentives in state and federal laws, a two-year probe has found.

A Daily News investigation discovered that the county receives nearly $30,000 a year from federal and state governments for each child placed in the system - money that goes to pay the stipends of foster parents, but also wages, benefits and overhead costs for child-welfare workers and executives. For some special-needs children, the county receives up to $150,000 annually.

"Called the 'perverse incentive factor,' states and counties earn more revenues by having more children in the system - whether it is opening a case to investigate a report of child abuse and neglect or placing a child in foster care," wrote the authors of a recent report by the state Department of Social Services Child Welfare Stakeholders Group.

Since the early 1980s, the number of foster children in California has gone up fivefold, and doubled in the county and nation. About one in four children will come into contact with the child welfare system before turning 18, officials say.

This has overwhelmed social workers, who often don't have time to help troubled families or monitor the care children receive in foster homes.

The hundreds of thousands of children who have cycled through the county's system over the years are six to seven times more likely to be mistreated and three times more likely to be killed than children in the general population, government statistics reveal.

Officials acknowledge that more than 660 children embroiled in the county's foster care system have died since 1991, including more than 160 who were homicide victims.

"The county's foster care system makes Charles Dickens' descriptions look flattering," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

David Sanders, who took over as director of the Department of Children and Family Services in March, said experts estimate up to 50 percent of the 75,000 children in the system and adoptive homes could have been left in their parents' care if appropriate services had been provided. He said DCFS comes into contact with nearly 180,000 children each year.

The Daily News' investigation of the child-welfare system, which is shrouded in secrecy by confidentiality laws, involved the review of tens of thousands of pages of government and confidential juvenile court documents, studies, computer databases and several hundred interviews.

As the investigation progressed, state and county officials acknowledged that the financial incentives built into the laws encourage the needless placements of children in foster care, and officials have started taking steps to reform the system.

Copyright 2003 KABC-TV and the Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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