Reaction to L.A. Times Privatized Foster Care Exposé: Accreditation Would Help

In December, just before the holidays, the L.A. Times published a lengthy story by reporter Garrett Therolf that called into question the state’s use of private foster family agencies.

The state has relied on private providers for the bulk of foster parent recruitment and training for the past 27 years, and spends approximately $400 million each year on those organizations.

The thrust of Therolf’s piece is stated early on:

“Those living in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children in state-supervised foster family homes, according to a Times analysis of more than 1 million hotline investigations over a recent three-year period.

The private providers are strapped to find willing homes and have accepted thousands of “people convicted of crimes,” Therolf reports.

The article elicited a number of interesting responses from leaders in California’s child welfare community. Following are a few of them, drawn from public statements:

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services:

Many of the horrible examples of child abuse, lax oversight and unqualified foster parents reported in some private foster family agencies may have been prevented had the state or county required that foster family agencies meet standards for national accreditation.

The California Alliance of Child and Family Services and the Association of Community Human Services Agencies have both called for national accreditation as a requirement of licensure for group homes and foster family agencies.

Would you send your child to an unaccredited college? Would you have your sick child treated at an unaccredited hospital? Of course not. Then, why do we allow our foster children to be placed with unaccredited foster family agencies?

Joe Costa, CEO of Hillsides, a California private provider that has opted not to take on foster care:

“Unlike many of our peer organizations, Hillsides does not provide foster family services. We do not have any foster homes associated with Hillsides. When I asked my predecessor John Hitchcock why that was the case, he indicated he was reluctant to provide a foster home service where the quality of care that would be provided in these foster homes could not be guaranteed.

He had reason for his reluctance and certainly the recent exposé in the Los Angeles Times points to why we all should be reluctant to entrust vulnerable children to a system that seems woefully inadequate.

The article points to abuses by some providers and certainly does not reflect the excellent and essential service that many of our peer organizations provide through the foster homes that they sponsor. However, it would seem from the article that there are some significant concerns with how many of the foster home agencies operate and are monitored.

More so than ever, the children that are being referred to a foster home require a relatively comprehensive array of services. The foster parent must display extraordinary skill and ability to be successful. In addition to providing a safe living environment, foster parents are asked to facilitate therapeutic care that is specifically oriented to the individual needs of the child.

It is very demanding, requires a significant level of training and exclusive commitment. Given the extraordinary need for such homes and the increasing neediness of the children being served, it is essential that the selection of foster parents benefit from a rigorous screening process. In addition, foster parents should be afforded all the resources and support needed to adequately and effectively address the needs of the children in their care.

From the details revealed in the Los Angeles Times article this was not the case with the foster parents that were the subject of the exposé. In addition, the organizations themselves did not have the adequate structure or orientation to effectively deliver quality care to these children.

The following measures would better provide for the needs of the children served in foster homes:

First, foster homes should be aligned with a reputable organization that is accredited by a body that has clearly identified standards of operation and practice for foster homes. Second, the same licensing and regulatory requirements that govern institutions providing therapeutic services should apply to all foster homes and be rigorously applied and monitored by Department of Children and Family Services.

Third, infractions or violations need to have meaningful consequences and be addressed in a timely fashion. Minimally, these measures should be instituted if not already in place.

Although there will always be a need for good quality foster homes, the ultimate solution is helping families to provide for their own children. Much success has been achieved by identifying within an extended family a relative who can fulfill the parenting responsibilities, if for whatever reason the actual parents are unable to do so.

Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California-Berkeley, who Therolf quoted in the story:

I read with dismay the recent L.A. Times article, “Private foster care system, intended to save children, endangers some,” written by Garrett Therolf. I was appalled to see that my comments were taken out of context and grossly misrepresented the nature of my conversation with the author.

The conversation related to out of home care, which would include kin, FFAs, and county foster homes. The monitoring, support, and supervision in all of these settings, in general, are inadequate. It is inaccurate and inappropriate to implicate only one type of care, in this instance private foster care.

Whether care should be provided to children under the auspices of public or private agencies is not the most salient point. Instead, the multiple forces that complicate caregiving, and the challenges agency administrators and staff face in managing and supporting effective care are the central questions that should drive policy and practice in the area of foster care.

…Some of the design features of FFAs should insure high quality care to children: On average, caregivers affiliated with FFAs participate in more pre-service training hours; they typically receive higher subsidies to off-set their costs; and the social workers associated with FFAs usually have lower caseloads which should translate into greater availability and contact-time with children and families. Clearly these organizational features may not render effective care for all children all of the time.

Unfortunately, the author of the L.A. Times article missed an important opportunity to help readers understand the multiple forces that complicate caregiving and the challenges agency administrators and staff face in managing and supporting effective care.

The Los Angeles Times’ Editorial Board, in a piece entitled “Reform the Private Foster Care System, Right Now“:

States and counties tend to ride a child welfare policy pendulum, swinging between the rescue model — often touted after a high-profile and emotionally searing death of a child at the hands of an abusive parent — to the repair approach, which gains currency after reports of a child death in foster care. That pendulum is also powered by reports of overly aggressive social workers who, it is argued, needlessly remove children from loving homes because the county appears unable to distinguish between abuse and poverty. And it is powered as well by shrinking revenue and government’s need to serve more people with less money. Candidates often campaign on emotional arguments about foster care, and lawmakers introduce bills that are geared toward one swing or the other of the pendulum.

But without switching ideologies or following policy trends, California’s state and county governments have, right now, the ability — and the duty — to do things that might decrease the danger to children, whether they live in private agency foster homes, individually state-licensed homes, with relatives or with their own parents.

State regulators and lawmakers should begin with the waivers granted by the state that allow convicted criminals, who are otherwise ineligible, to become operators of foster care agencies and even to become foster parents. The California Department of Social Services issues the waivers but does not disclose to county child welfare departments who gets them or what the underlying crimes were (convictions for child abuse, sex crimes and violent and most serious crimes are not waivable).

That’s information counties should have at their disposal when determining whether to send a child to any particular private agency home, because they have the responsibility to say yes or no to any placement and to ensure that children sent there remain safe. To do that, they must know all relevant information about the home and the people operating it.

Los Angeles County should consider amending its contracts with private agencies to require them to disclose conviction and waiver information. In the alternative, the law that bars disclosure by the state should be amended to permit the sharing of information with counties.

More fundamentally, the state should analyze its waiver data to determine whether foster parents with criminal convictions in their backgrounds are more likely than other foster parents to abuse children. Any such correlation should be made public, while still protecting individual applicants, so that the state can be assessed on whether it grants too many waivers or if the list of non-waivable crimes should be expanded.

But before a lawmaker precipitously introduces a bill to eliminate waivers, it would be useful to know whether there is actually a greater risk to a child living with someone with a nonviolent conviction. It’s natural to assume so; ideally, society would want each child to live with a well-adjusted family ready to set a good example.

But rather than assuming, let’s find out. Californians need to be able to verify that the state does an acceptable job of screening waiver applicants and approves people who are fit to become foster parents.

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