I was recently floored by the contrast between two images of at-risk youth.
One scene appeared in photo form in a recent Los Angeles Times article and featured a frightened young girl being rescued off the streets by workers from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
The article is about the challenges confronted by DCFS as it attempts to keep safe the most difficult-to-serve children in its care, resorting to placing them in a holding facility known as the Youth Welcome Center.
This facility provides a temporary escape from some of the horrors of abuse and neglect that these children and youth have experienced. All agree that this facility is not the answer to the lack of homes for these children but a mere stopgap measure until a more permanent housing solution can be found.
The other youth I saw with my own eyes: Briana Elliott, a guest speaker at the Hillsides annual gala for our donors. Beautifully attired and confident, Briana stood before 425 guests and told her story of being abandoned by her family, placed at Hillsides, and now living with her aunt, hopeful for a bright future.
It is a poignant story of a childhood lost but eventually restored. It is a story of a young girl bewildered and hurt by disappointment, fearing for her safety and well-being, who found her spirit renewed and her hope restored because of the care she received while at Hillsides. The trauma caused by abandonment gave way to a resolve to fulfill her dreams.
Her emotional story commanded the attention of the ballroom. She spoke eloquently not only of the care she received but of the dreams she now has.
What she hopes for is what all children in the foster care system seek: trauma relieved, hope restored, and dreams fulfilled. Hillsides was eventually able to arrange for Briana to live with a caring aunt, who provided Briana with the love and stability that allowed Briana to graduate from high school and attend college.
While Briana is a success story, the challenges facing children in situations like she had growing up are great and the solutions are elusive. The current child welfare system in Los Angeles County is a quagmire that at best holds children in place and at worst is a death trap.
There is no single strategy to address the dilemma of abuse and neglect compounded by a bureaucratic morass, the lack of resources, and a failure to resolve the problem. The challenge is replacing a failed system with one that provides early and effective care for vulnerable families, on-going support, and dedicated resources.
To suggest any one approach is the answer would be naïve. The current challenges of the children, youth, and families we serve indicate that what is needed is a diverse array of services, from early intervention to quality foster homes to residential treatment programs for the most acute.
We need a system that is sufficiently resourced to allow for an individualized program of services tailored to the urgent needs of both child and family. In a political environment driven by a zero sum approach, there are no easy answers as cuts continue to be made to essential services. This approach is a short-sighted tactic to a complex problem that places the fragile well-being of the most vulnerable at risk.
For the children rescued by DCFS only to find themselves in a “holding facility” with no plan easily identified, the wait is long and intolerable. I am sure that Briana experienced anxiety and pain because of her childhood abandonment. But her experience with affectionate, caring staff at Hillsides and ultimately her aunt’s love eased the pain, allowed her to let go of the resentment, and freed her to pursue her dreams.
We can only hope that those children whose bleak plight was featured in the LA Times article may benefit from the tender care of those who, in spite of a broken system, persevere to bring about lasting change in the life of a vulnerable child.
Joseph Costa is CEO of Hillsides, a multi-service provider in California.