County abuses abused children

County abuses abused children
LA Daily News
Article Launched:06/29/2007 09:13:03 PM PDT
A civil grand jury on Friday blasted county departments for failing to fund an abuse-prevention program and share crucial information on children in county custody even as the number of slayings of abused children more than tripled.

Despite efforts to reform the child protective system, jurors wrote in their report that they are profoundly concerned that the number of slayings soared from 15 in 2003 to 53 in 2006.

“The Grand Jury concludes that the threat to abused and neglected children within the county remains a serious concern,” jurors wrote.

“It recognizes the efforts … to provide care and security for such children, but it has determined that the existing system of information exchange is not adequate, and, indeed puts some children unnecessarily at risk.”

The jury also faulted an abuse-prevention program that is part of a long-delayed federal funding waiver expected to let the county’s child welfare agency use $369 million to help thousands of foster children live safely with their parents.

The fund has shrunk to $4 million a year as money has been diverted to pay for a 17 percent jump in pay and benefits for Department of Children and Family Services workers.

Fund depleted

The fund also has been depleted to pay for federal fines over late inspections of foster homes and fee increases for foster-care agencies and foster parents.

“What has happened is all that money has been siphoned off,” Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke said Friday. “What we thought was going to be a tremendous amount is now down to $4 million.

“The money has gone to various things. The last one was an increase given by the state to foster homes. That includes group homes. Those homes receive very high reimbursements.”

Group-home owners are currently paid up to $76,452 a year to take care of a foster child. That is expected to increase 5 percent next year if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs legislation the Assembly and Senate just approved.

“Did the county sabotage its own waiver or did the state and Legislature do it?” asked Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “California is known for having a very powerful group-home industry. They have certainly undercut reforms before.”

Trish Ploehn, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said problems with departments sharing information is pervasive across the country.

Sharing information

Although state and federal privacy laws prevent departments from sharing critical information about children, Ploehn said her department is working closely with health and mental health departments to “open our books to each other.”

Ploehn also said the 15 deaths of youths in 2003 involved children who were killed by family members or foster parents. Although that number more than tripled to 53 last year, Ploehn said the number of children killed by family members or foster parents actually dropped to four.

“The deaths due to abuse and neglect have been reduced significantly,” Ploehn said. “The increase was primarily due to … gang-related shootings.”

Most of the increase in homicides was attributed to drive-by shootings, which rose from six in 2004 to 39 last year.

Gang shootings

Burke said the number of current or former foster children killed in gang shootings follows an increase in gang-related violence throughout the county.

“Gangs are heavily made up of kids in our foster-care system,” Burke said. “I wish it wasn’t that way. They are young people who have no family and they look for ties. They are very vulnerable to gang participation.”

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo — who asked the grand jury to investigate any links between the increase in drive-by shootings and DCFS reforms — said he had hoped the grand jury would also address prevention issues.

“I know everybody believes family preservation is a laudable goal, but not when it means putting children back into homes where they have been previously abused,” Delgadillo said.

The grand jury was critical of the county’s group homes, finding that abused and neglected children placed in these homes have a greater propensity to engage in delinquent behavior.

‘Poor outcome’

Of a sample of children in group homes who had committed crimes, 24 percent involved violence and 17 percent involved burglary.

As a result, some of the more than 90,000 children involved in the county’s child welfare system from 2002 to 2005 wound up in the juvenile delinquency system.

“The number of children who annually enter the child welfare and juvenile justice systems is staggering,” jurors wrote.

“Even more disappointing is the estimate by probation officials that 40 percent of the wards that enter their system were once dependents in the child welfare system.

“This is a poor outcome, given the dedication and hard work of all involved. It draws into question the efficacy of the county’s current programs and methods of care for these children.”

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