After a long night of wiping off seats and sweeping up plastic cups at one of Los Angeles’ largest stadiums, Abraham Gomez rushes home to change his clothes, then hits the open highway just a little after sunrise.
He’ll drive for an hour to northern Los Angeles County to visit his oldest daughter on Saturday morning. He’ll then head south, almost 100 miles away into a different county to visit his other little girl and an infant son. By the time he returns to his bed at a sober living facility near Compton, he’ll have driven more than 200 miles in one day.
Noni Brown does almost the same. She leaves her home near downtown Los Angeles early every Friday morning to catch a ride from a friend to San Bernardino County, more than 50 miles away. That’s where she’ll see her 3-year-old son for just a few hours before heading back home to her part-time job. Like Gomez, Brown also is part of a crew that cleans concert and sports venues like the Forum and the Staples Center long after crowds have gone home for the night.
Gomez and Brown don’t know each other, but their paths run nearly parallel. Her use of marijuana and his use of harder street drugs led them to be deemed unfit as parents, according to county social workers. Both found themselves in a juvenile dependency court, where judges ordered them to complete drug treatment and parenting programs while their children were placed under the care of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
And both are from South Los Angeles neighborhoods where there are too few foster homes and beds for children removed from their home. Children from South Los Angeles — the area of the county that sends the most children into foster care — are more likely than not to be placed far from home, in a different part of the county.
For parents who are trying to maintain contact with their sons and daughters, completing court-ordered visitations between work hours and while undertaking drug treatment programs can be a challenge, especially without a car, a friend or money for transportation.
“It’s been a struggle, but I want this struggle,” Gomez, 39, said, of his resolve to stay clean, to keep his job, and do what it takes to see his children. He shares a car with his girlfriend, who is the mother of his three children, and who also is completing a drug treatment program.
“I’ll make it work,” Brown, 27, said. “The classes are for my son. The job is so I can keep a roof over our heads and get the bills paid on time.”
Data obtained by The Imprint found more than half of children from South Los Angeles who are ordered to live in out-of-home placement foster care are sent to sometimes-distant parts of the county, including Antelope Valley. For almost 2,500 children from the communities of Athens, Compton, Crenshaw, Florence, Hyde Park, Lynwood, Paramount and Watts, that means foster care placements that can take hours for their parents to reach for a visit.
By state law, DCFS places a priority on finding homes with family and non-related extended family members regardless of location, officials said. Last year, there were 18,156 children placed in out-of-home care. More than half of those children were placed with family members, according to DCFS.
Both Gomez and Brown’s children were placed with relatives, but those family members live far away. Brown said she would have preferred it if her son was placed in a foster home closer to where she lives, because of family differences.
But even if Brown’s aunt hadn’t accepted her son, finding a place for him close to her is a challenge, according to DCFS data released to The Imprint. There are 479 children placed in foster homes in the South L.A. area, which does not include children placed with relatives. By comparison, 1,110 children were placed in other parts of the county. The zip code with the highest number of children outside of South L.A. was 93535 in Lancaster, which can be a three-hour drive, one way, from DCFS’s Vermont Corridor office in South L.A.
The long-distance placements are not new and have been an ongoing issue for many parents for years, said Patricia McKenna, program manager and child welfare liaison at Shields for Families, a South Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that runs several programs to help families reunify, among other services.
McKenna said her organization is currently working with a half dozen parents who see children far away, but the numbers can fluctuate.
“It’s gotten better but it’s not yet a well-oiled machine,” McKenna said of efforts to help parents. “From a parent’s perspective, we’ve seen this month after month, year after year, client after client.”
Transportation remains the biggest challenge among parents who are in court-ordered programs and who are mandated to visit children at least once a week.
“There’s not a lot of lenience if you are a parent making those visits,” McKenna said. If a parent is 15 minutes late to a visitation, a foster parent may decide not to stick around and wait, McKenna said. A failure to complete the visitation can later count against the parent in court.
Federal policies, fear of in-depth background checks and economics have all played a part in a dearth of families who want to become foster parents in South L.A., McKenna said.
When the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 passed, prospective parents had to undergo intense background checks to weed out sex offenders. But the law had a greater impact — all of a prospective foster parent’s past crimes, such as drug use or even shoplifting, were exposed.
“It created this backlog in non-relative placements,” McKenna said. “There were a lot of hoops that people had to jump through to qualify. Families didn’t want to deal with the drama to get approved.”
Officials with DCFS said their agency has been able to place children with family members who have had arrests and convictions for crimes if they qualify for exemptions.
Legislation signed in 2017 by California Governor Jerry Brown allowed for a more streamlined criminal exemption process so it can make decisions without the need for all police reports, according to DCFS officials.
McKenna said many DCFS social workers do make an effort to keep foster children close to home.
“I’ve witnessed DCFS staff calling home after home after home,” she said. “Some of the workers try really hard to keep all the siblings together.”
She also said some relatives and some families may not have the extra income to take in a relative’s child.
Officials with DCFS say progress is being made, but also acknowledge the challenges of recruiting families and relatives willing to become foster parents for several reasons. Last year, DCFS had 662 county homes with 1,902 beds. Foster family agencies had another 3,288 homes with 7,537 beds. That’s an improvement from five years ago. In 2013, DCFS had 586 homes with 1,795 beds, while foster family agencies had 3,016 homes with 7, 113 beds.
But recruiting in South Los Angeles remains a little more challenging than others, county officials said. It’s one of the poorest areas of the county, where 34 percent of residents live in poverty compared to 18 percent across Los Angeles County, according to recent data from the Department of Public Health. In addition, at least 32 percent of households in the region report food insecurity compared to 27 percent of Los Angeles County as a whole. And at least 51 percent of households already have children, compared to 37 percent of the county overall.
“Potential foster parents [in South Los Angeles] have expressed concerns that they would not qualify because they are not married, not a homeowner or not a U.S. citizen,” Cagle said. “We want the community to know that these are not requirements and all interested individuals who want to provide a safe, loving and nurturing home for a child are encouraged to contact FosterLAKids.org or call (888) 811-1121.”
The struggle to visit children because of transportation, long distances and shortages of outside monitors to supervise visits, was presented to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors in an in-depth report in 2017.
“In a county as large as Los Angeles, the logistics of scheduling visits with multiple parties (which in addition to the parent and child may also include visitation monitors, siblings, foster parents, social workers and others) is a challenge,” Cagle said. “However, children and parents with regular visitation are more likely to reunify, and it is our job to make sure these family visits happen.”
Cagle said the department also is working to establish stronger partnerships with the faith-based community in South Los Angeles who might be able to host visitations. He also said DCFS is exploring the use of rideshare services for parents. Cagle said the county provides parents with bus passes or tokens, but those are not always helpful for parents like Gomez who must venture to far-flung areas to preserve relationships with children in foster care.
Gomez said he feels lucky that his children are with his sisters, but said he fears that his infant son won’t be able to relate to his mother.
He also said he would have preferred it if he could have kept his children while he attended drug treatment programs. But now, as Gomez nears the completion of his substance use disorder classes, he said the experience of being separated from his children helped him realize his daughters and son are his priority.
“It was needed,” Gomez said of spending time away from his children to become sober. “I’ve been working really hard. I’ve done everything I had to do for my kids, my loved ones.”
Brown, who also is about to graduate from drug treatment and parenting classes with Shields for Families, said she is looking forward to longer visits with her son. She too was in the foster care system as a youth, but she and her mother remain close.
“It makes me cry sometimes,” Brown said of being separated from her child.
“My mom is my backbone,” Brown added. “She tells me, ‘Don’t give up like I did.'”