Money motive in foster care
Half of county placements unnecessary, often driven by desire for
Up to half of Los Angeles County's foster
children were needlessly placed in a system that is often more
dangerous than their own homes because of financial incentives in
state and federal laws, a two-year, Los Angeles Newspaper Group
investigation has found.
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
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
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.
"There were probably issues the kids and their families were
facing, but if they had some kind of support services, the kids
could have stayed home,' Sanders said. "At the extreme, there are
clearly parents who never should have had their children. They
torture their children and everyone in the community would agree
that they should not have their children.
"On the other end, you clearly have situations where families
have done things, but may be under stress one day, have every
intention of taking care of their children and are not dangerous,
but involvement by child protective services ends up being much too
The newspaper group 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
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.
Social worker Anthony Cavuoti, who has worked 14 years for the
county, said DCFS employees use the most liberal of guidelines in
deciding whether to remove a child from their home. Some parents
have had their children removed for yelling at them, allowing them
to miss or be late to school or having a dirty home.
"The service that DCFS now provides is worse than the abuse that
most abused children ever experienced. The trauma they inflict on
ordinary children is unspeakable.'
Sanders said he thinks caseworkers have sometimes been too eager
to remove children from their homes a practice he is trying to
"I think children should only be removed when there is an
imminent risk. I've said consistently that we do have too many
children who have been removed,' he said.
"We need to provide the kind of supports to keep these kids at
As early as 1992, the state's Little Hoover Commission cited
experts who estimated that 35 to 70 percent of foster children in
California should never have been removed from their families and
have suffered deep psychological trauma as a result. On any given
day, a total of 175,000 children are now in the state child
In recent months, parents in several states have filed
class-action lawsuits and testified before Congress, alleging that
thousands of their children have been wrongfully taken from their
State and county officials admitted recently that they have
placed too many children in foster care, especially poor and
minority children. California has 13 percent of the nation's total
child population, but 20 percent of its foster children, statistics
Minorities make up 85 percent of foster children in the county
and 70 percent statewide. Experts say so many minorities are placed
in foster care because the federal government pays for most of the
costs of caring for foster children from poor families while states
and counties are expected to pick up most of the tab for foster
children from wealthier homes.
"That's exactly right,' Sanders said. "The eligibility for foster
care reimbursements is poverty driven.'
State and county officials say not enough has been done to help
troubled families and the system has deteriorated into an
"adversarial and coercive' one that places too much emphasis on
investigating families for alleged mistreatment and removing their
About 80 percent of foster children in the state and county are
removed for "neglect,' which experts say is often a euphemism for
poverty-related conditions, such as dirty or cramped homes, a lack
of money to provide enough food, clothing and medical care to
children or a single mother who works more than one job, can't
afford child care and leaves her children unattended.
The Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles think tank,
released a report in 1999 that found the current child protective
system undermines parental authority, wrongfully accuses hundreds of
thousands of innocent families and leaves many children at risk of
The study's author, Susan Orr, a former U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services child-abuse researcher, said too many unfounded
allegations drain the system's resources.
She noted that nearly 50 percent of child-abuse deaths occur in
families that have had some contact with children's services
agencies. That statistic, say experts, shows the system is failing
in its basic mission of protecting children from truly abusive
A review of more than $25 million in foster care lawsuit
settlements and judgments in Los Angeles County since the early
1990s found about half involved the unnecessary removal of children
and their subsequent mistreatment or wrongful deaths, according to
the county's own admissions of wrongful seizures in county Claims
Board documents or assertions by the families' attorneys.
In a newspaper group review of 139 claims against the county an
action that usually precedes the filing of a lawsuit against the
county 26 of the claims involved allegations of wrongful seizures of
children. In two cases, parents alleged their children were seized
by the county for financial gain because local governments receive
revenue for every child taken into the system.
Parents also have alleged in dozens of recent appeals to state
appellate courts that their children were needlessly taken from
"It's legal kidnapping to make a profit,' said Lancaster resident
John Elliott, a 54-year-old former Warner Bros. special-effects
technician, who filed a claim alleging social workers made false
allegations against him and placed his daughter in foster care.
After he spent $150,000 fighting to get his daughter back, the
county ultimately admitted it was mistaken in taking his daughter
and returned her to him.
"They tell lies to keep your kids in the system,' Elliott said.
"My daughter was abused the whole time she was there. It's a
multibillion-dollar business. It's all about profit.'
Santa Ana attorney Jack H. Anthony, who won a $1.5 million
verdict in 2001 in a case involving the death of a foster child
burned in scalding bathtub water, said parents often call asking him
to file lawsuits over the unnecessary placement of their children in
foster care. But, social workers are generally immune from liability
for the wrongful placement of a child in foster care, Anthony said.
"It's very difficult to hold anybody responsible for making a
negligent decision to take the children,' Anthony said. "In most of
the cases I see, the children would have been better off had they
not been taken from their parents.'
For years, DCFS had no clear standards defining what child abuse
or neglect was. The decision whether to remove a child was often
left up to overworked social workers' hunches about how safe
children were in their parents' homes, Sanders said.
Bruce Rubenstein, DCFS deputy director from 1991-97, said the
department intimidated social workers into removing children for
little or no reason after a couple of high-profile cases where
children returned from foster care to their parents were murdered.
"The word was, 'Remove everybody. Remove all the kids.' It's
pretty fundamental that the county was breaking up families that
didn't need to be broken up,' Rubenstein said. "Only new leadership
giving clear messages can free that department from this sickness.'
DCFS recently began training social workers in a research-based
tool called "structured decision-making,' that Sanders hopes will
help them make better decisions about when to remove a child. The
method has been successful in reducing unnecessary foster care
placements in other states and counties.
The stakeholders report found the vague definition of neglect,
unbridled discretion and a lack of training form a dangerous
combination in the hands of social workers charged with deciding the
fate of families.
Despite a quadrupling in reporting of child mistreatment cases
since 1976 due to greater awareness of the child abuse problem in
the nation, the number of actual cases of abuse and neglect annually
has remained flat.
Unfortunately, experts say in explaining the large number of
false accusations, the DCFS Child Abuse Hotline has become a weapon
of choice for malicious neighbors and angry spouses and lovers in
child custody disputes.
"A lot of people use child protective services for revenge,'
Cavuoti said. "About half of the cases we get are completely bogus.
They are just people calling to get back at a neighbor.'
While about 7,500 children enter the county's foster care system
each year, only a small percentage are reunified with their
families. A recent study found that nationwide 76 percent of
children are returned home from foster care within a year. But in
Los Angeles County, only 19 percent are returned home within a year
of entering foster care.
Coming Monday: Following years of scandals and heartbreak in the
nation's largest child-protective system, Los Angeles County
officials and child advocates hope a new director and innovative
ideas will dramatically improve the lives of local foster children.