Money motive in foster care

Children: Half of county placements unnecessary, often driven by desire for funding.

By Troy Anderson
Staff writer

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 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.

"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 intrusive.'

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 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.

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 change.

"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 home.'

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 protective system.

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 homes.

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 show.

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 children.

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 mistreatment.

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 parents.

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 them.

"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.