Out of County, CA: L.A. Kids Head East to Mrs. J’s House

Out of County, CA is a series of stories about the experiences of out-of-county foster youth in California. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Los Angeles County’s aim to place foster children in homes within their own communities is often thwarted by the stark reality that those communities lack sufficient foster beds.

Economics make it so that many times the only suitable placement for an L.A. youth is with a foster parent in a more rural, less pricey area, such as San Bernardino County or Riverside County, county officials say.

When that happens, L.A. County’s colossal child protective services agency is compelled to look across the county line and find people like Mrs. J*, who, in 30 years, has not only fostered 25 youths from San Bernardino County, but also three from L.A. County.

Mrs. J believes that finding a safe foster home that can meet a child’s physical and emotional needs eclipses all other considerations when making foster care placements.

But if a safe and suitable home is available in a child’s own county, child protective services agencies should strive to place the child there, Mrs. J says. There are services, such as mental health care that are based in a child’s home county. And long-distance trips to court-ordered visitations with a child’s birth parents can be arduous.

Moreover, when a child is placed far from home, “anything that was familiar to them is no longer there,” Mrs. J said.

San Bernardino county line

At the start of this year, L.A. County had 3,598 foster youths living outside of L.A. County, according to the Center for Social Science Research’s Child Welfare Indicators Project, which displays the numbers of out-of-county foster youth supervised by each county. The primary recipient of L.A. County children was San Bernardino County, followed by Riverside County.

Los Angeles County2 | Create infographics

L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) 2013-14 biennial report illustrates a steady decrease in the department’s total supply of beds in foster homes, as well as in group homes and in private foster family agencies, which counties contract with to care for children. The county’s foster care system has also decreased substantially over the past decade, but the decrease in available beds surpasses that reduction.

The number of children in out-of-home care decreased by 46 percent, from 38,273 in 2000 to 20,629 in 2013.

Meanwhile, the supply of foster beds decreased by 58 percent, from 26,895 to 11,362, over that period, according to the report.

“It’s not that we have an inherent desire to drive out to San Bernardino County, but that’s where our foster parents have chosen to locate, and I think a lot of it is economics,” said Gregory Stock, who is an assistant regional administrator for DCFS’s Out of County Services Division.

Stock suspects that areas with lower costs of living, such as the Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County, as well as San Bernardino and Riverside counties, are able to attract more foster parents, foster family agencies, group home providers and even kinship caregivers—relatives who volunteer to care for a child who has been removed from his or her home.

The approach that DCFS promotes as a “best practice” is to first look for placement options in a child’s own community and move the radius outward until a suitable placement is found, Stock said.

“Kids do better when they can stay in the same school or be close to their neighborhood,” he added.

On the contrary, Mrs. J said she has some misgivings about children being placed very close to home, as a result of negative experiences she has had dealing with a birth parent who was a “stalker” and one who had gang ties.

Out-of-County Stats

At the start of this year, Los Angeles County had 17 percent of its 21,108 foster youth in out-of-county placements, according to the Child Welfare Indicators Project. The primary recipient, San Bernardino County, is hosting 1,607 children from L.A. County, and 858 L.A. youth are currently placed in Riverside County.

Very often when Los Angeles County places a child in a neighboring county, it is not in a government-run “foster home” that receives a payment set by the state of California, such as Mrs. J’s home. At the start of the year, L.A. County had only 9 percent of its youth, 123 children, in these types of out-of-county foster homes.

L.A. County’s placements in San Bernardino and Riverside counties were most often with privately run foster family agencies that it contracts to house foster children. L.A. County placed 706 youths with foster family agencies in San Bernardino County and 344 youths with foster family agencies in Riverside County.

Placements with foster family agencies comprised 26 percent of L.A. County’s out-of-county placements and represented 1,252 youths.

Overall, L.A. County’s most common type of out-of-county placement is in kinship care, wherein children are placed with distant family or relatives. That comprised 15 percent of all out-of-county placements and represented 1,356 youths.

The route out of the county is not a one-way street. The counties adjacent to L.A. County place children outside of their own boundaries at a similar rate.

The frequency with which counties place their foster children elsewhere varies by placement type. L.A. County keeps more of its group home placements within its boundaries than San Bernardino or Riverside County does, but it sends a greater percentage of its youth out of the county for placements in foster homes or with foster family agencies.

Los Angeles County1 | Create infographics

The Foster Home Shortage

Los Angeles County’s median house or condo value in 2013 was almost $200,000 higher than the median house or condo value in both San Bernardino and Riverside counties, according to city-data.com. The median value in L.A. County was $410,600, while it was $211,500 in San Bernardino County and $222,700 in Riverside County.

Compounding the high cost of housing in Los Angeles, the state’s payments for foster parents has not kept pace with the cost of living, Stock said. This could result in foster parents either retiring from the system or moving to another county.

The current basic reimbursement rate ranges from $671 to $838 per month, depending on the age of the child, according to the DCFS website. There are also higher rates for specialized care.

Armand Montiel, director of communications for DCFS, said that when foster parents retire, they are hard to replace with today’s working adults.

On top of that, he said, economic difficulties have led more young adults to move back home, hence fewer “empty nests” to welcome a foster child.

“In the past, many of our foster parents were stay-at-home parents or empty nesters,” Montiel said.

Economics might also explain the prevalence of private foster family agencies in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

As private businesses, foster family agencies can choose to operate wherever they can minimize their costs and maximize profits. It makes sense for them to locate in more rural, less expensive areas, Stock said.

This logic might explain why 26 percent of the L.A. County foster kids placed with foster family agencies were living outside of L.A. County.

Leslie Heimov, executive director of Children’s Law Center of California, agrees that favorable real estate prices attract foster family agencies as well as group homes.

“One of the reasons there’s so many facilities out there is that the real estate is less expensive and people can afford to start those businesses,” Heimov said.

Life in Out of County, CA

When Mrs. J was fostering L.A. County foster children, she had to take them to L.A. County to access mental health services.

Each California county has its own network of local mental health service providers, and getting services approved in a different county, with a different set of service providers, can be difficult for many out-of-county foster youth with serious mental health needs.

In addition, many birth parents have the right to visit their children periodically, and Mrs. J said she was responsible for arranging the visits. She was able to meet such requirements because she lived close to the county line and parenting was her only job.

But working foster parents might find the demands of fostering an out-of-county child too demanding, she said, especially if they live far from the county line.

Mrs. J, who lets her foster children decide what to call her, is confident she has provided a congenial home to all of them. Two of her teenage foster youths started calling her by the moniker “Mrs. J,” while most of the younger children have simply called her “mom,” she explained.

But with children of her own, including children she adopted from foster care, filling her house, Mrs. J cannot foster any more children right now. Still, she receives phone calls from placement units and turns down at least two placement requests every week, she said. Usually the calls are from San Bernardino County’s foster care placement unit, however, that unit sometimes calls on behalf of L.A. County, she said. Early this month, an L.A. County social worker called her directly to request a placement, she added.

Perhaps some of those children will end up crossing county lines to find a new home.

“There is a shortage of foster homes,” Mrs. J said. “I say place that child somewhere safe that will take care of that child’s needs.

*This story referred to the San Bernardino County foster mother as Mrs. J due to her wish to maintain the privacy of her home by remaining anonymous.

Meiling Bedard and Maria Akhter contributed to the data visualization for this story.

About Out of County, CA

Over the next two weeks, The Imprint will present a series of stories about the experiences of out-of-county foster youth in California.

The county-run system that has emerged is riven with conflicting goals, pressures and incentives. Significant disparities have emerged between counties, with stark differences in the types and availabilities of services to children in care.

For California’s 12,626 out-of-county youth—1 in 5 of all children in the system— the journey across county lines is a frequent and largely unacknowledged experience in the state’s mammoth child-welfare system. 

As part of our Out of County, CA series, we examine several different placement types to better understand what the decision to send children out of county means—including both the costs and benefits—to a group that often travels hundreds of miles in search of safety, stability and permanency.

We know there are even more stories left to tell for a group that often escapes wider attention. If you’ve got a comment, idea or tip, please let us know. We look forward to your comments and perspective.

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