Child Protection Chief Wants Courts Involved in Welcome Center Shakeup

In the run up to the closure of a pair of emergency shelters for abused children in Los Angeles County, Office of Child Protection Director Michael Nash says the county should return to an old system of judicial oversight to improve the experiences of children at such shelters.

In November of last year, the county’s child welfare leadership sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors describing their plans to shutter the so-called Children’s Welcome Center and the Youth Welcome Center after both experienced persistent issues with children and youth overstaying the 24-hour limit set by the state.

California’s Department of Social Services filed a lawsuit against the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in response to the overcrowded conditions and sometimes lengthy stays at the shelters, leading to the county’s decision to fold the welcome centers. A new plan from the county calls for four private residential treatment agencies to offer 72-hour “transitional shelter care” to children and youth who would otherwise have ended up at the welcome centers.

OCP Director Nash addresses the Children's Commission

OCP Director Nash addresses the Children’s Commission

Nash unveiled his plan yesterday at a meeting of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families, the first time he has formally presented before the body since taking the helm of the recently created Office of Child Protection in January.

According to Nash, the county would reinstitute a judicial review every time a child enters an emergency shelter. Once a child is placed at a shelter, the court would be notified, and DCFS would be responsible for reporting back to the court within seven days about the child’s well being at the shelter as well as providing a description of the efforts made to successfully place the child in an appropriate living situation.

“There needs to be court oversight to show how the system is serving children and families,” Nash said during the meeting. “By doing that, we can hopefully ensure that some of these kids stay at these places only as long as they need to be there.”

Even after four service providers have been tapped to shoulder the burden of replacing the welcome centers, Commissioner Patricia Curry wants to make sure that similar issues do not recur at the new facilities.

“When 23 hours is up at the Children’s Welcome Center, we’ve been hearing stories about some children staying in social workers’ offices,” Curry said. “Even after 72 hours, the same thing could be happening again.”

For Nash, the longtime presiding judge of the county’s juvenile courts, judicial oversight would put pressure on DCFS to find ways to move children out of the shelters and into stable living situations.

“All the children that are going to the welcome center — whether they’re new kids in the system or existing kids in the system, or whether they go to a 72-hour facility or to a 30-day shelter — that same process needs to be in place,” he said. “This would speed up the process for change for a lot of these kids.”

Nash says that the oversight process was employed at the county’s notorious MacLaren Children’s Center, a county-run shelter that faced overcrowding and a lawsuit over its treatment of children with severe emotional and behavioral problems. After MacLaren was closed in 2003, the judicial protocol was no longer used.

Susan Abrams, interim policy director at the Children’s Law Center of California, says that judicial oversight is an important part of reforms to improve the experiences of youth staying in provisional situations.

Lawyers from the Children’s Law Center, which provides legal counsel for children in the county’s child-welfare system, have not always been notified when children are placed at the welcome centers, and some children there do not have access to adequate mental health and educational services, Abrams said.

“Very few of our clients there are getting appropriate services if they’re getting any services at all,” Abrams said. “Court oversight does address some of those issues of knowing where our clients are and being able to see them and making sure that appropriate services are being at least being ordered and hopefully implemented.”

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