Next month, Los Angeles County’s child protection department plans to shut down two centers meant to serve as children’s first stop on their traumatic journeys into foster care.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) says that the closure of the so-called Children’s Welcome Center and Youth Welcome Center – little more than three years after the first was opened – is an appropriate response to a state lawsuit, and good for children.
But, some strongly oppose the department’s move, fearing that the successful, award-winning shelter for infants and young children is being sacrificed for the failings of the Youth Welcome Center.
One of the key skeptics of the department’s plan is Astrid Heger, a clinical pediatrician who was instrumental in launching the Children’s Welcome Center. Heger says that not one child who has passed through its doors since the center opened in 2012 has died.
“I’m just going to tell you my opinion,” she says of the planned closure. “It puts a lot of kids at risk right now.”
Her primary concern is that children currently get medical and mental health screenings at the centers, and those screenings might be delayed, if they happen at all, under the new plan. If that’s the case, she says:
“We are going to see the kids start to die again, and the rates go back up of re-abuse, and the kids will be more invisible in the system.”
According to DCFS records, 5,158 children passed through both centers in 2015. That represents nearly half of the 11,654 children detained by the county last year.
The impending shakeup is the latest in a bleak, decades-long history of faltering attempts to provide children with a safe, welcoming place during the fitful first hours after they are removed from their homes.
When it was first opened in late 2012, the Children’s Welcome Center was widely praised as a step in the right direction after years of patently bad solutions to the chronic problem of a limited supply of foster homes.
Since the 2003 closure of MacLaren Children’s Center, a county-run shelter that had become a notorious dumping ground for hard-to-place children, DCFS had been sending children to wait for placements at Command Post, a sprawling office space where dozens of social workers respond to calls of abuse and neglect 24 hours a day.
In 2011, Maricruz Trevino was in charge of Command Post. Today she runs the welcome centers, and is the primary architect of the plan that will replace them.
At Command Post, Trevino had the unsettling task of accommodating traumatized children in a place that was never meant for them.
“This was not a place for kids,” she says. “That’s why I said they [DCFS] made a mistake sending me to Command Post, because I was very candid about everything that was going on. I was not going to sweep anything under the rug.”
The kids were eating McDonald’s everyday, crowded into makeshift rooms and staying beyond the limit of 24 hours mandated by the state. To boot, Trevino said that the same undertrained staff from the failed MacLaren center had followed the kids to their new makeshift home, exacerbating an already bad situation.
From her first days at Command Post, Trevino looked for a way to get the kids out of that austere office building. In 2012, one of the veterans of the night shift, a social worker by the name of Elba Covarrubias, told Trevino about a space in the “Outpatient Department” of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, which she said was “perfect.” Trevino checked it out.
Weeks later, Trevino and her boss, Jennifer Lopez, attended an event at the county medical center celebrating the installation of art in the hallway separating the abandoned daycare that Trevino wanted to use for children waiting placement and Astrid Heger’s VIP clinic.
Trevino and Lopez ran into Nick Ippolito, a deputy for Supervisor Don Knabe, and asked him to go down the hall to the abandoned room.
“So we put that little idea in their heads, and before I knew it, it just snowballed,” Trevino says.
Within weeks of Trevino’s tour with Ippolito, then Supervisor Gloria Molina issued a motion calling for the creation of what would be dubbed the Children’s Welcome Center.
One of the major selling points was Heger’s VIP clinic, located just down the hall. The clinic would provide mental health screenings and physical assessments for every child passing through the welcome center.
In a DCFS newsletter published shortly after the Children’s Welcome Center was opened in November 2012, Director Philip Browning said that the center, “will go a long way in reducing the trauma experienced by abused and neglected children in need of a safe home.”
Even The Los Angeles Times’ Garret Therolf, whose earlier articles about the use of Command Post for children awaiting placement had painted an unflattering picture of the department, wrote a hopeful story about the newly opened center.
Heger’s VIP clinic screened some 3,600 children in 2013, the first full year the center was open. She says that as many as one-third of those children had a mental or physical health diagnosis. In addition, Heger says that prospective foster parents were more willing to take in kids who had passed through the welcome center, because they knew that they were coming to them clean and healthy.
In 2014, the children’s center won the National Association of County’s “Achievement Award.”
But for all the positive attention to the center, something rare in the harsh world of child protection, things were about to change.
The county would try to build on its success with younger children by carving out space at the hospital to similarly serve youth over the age of 12. But poor staffing, the nature of the youth who cycled in and out, and media attention would fundamentally damage the program and imperil the future of the children’s center along with it.
As DCFS struggled with the Youth Welcome Center, the state took notice of both centers’ persistent problems with overstays. Because they were designed as short-term waiting rooms, the centers were never licensed as shelters–meaning DCFS had only 24 hours to keep the children there. As the numbers of children surged, the stays extended, and eventually California’s Department of Social Services would sue DCFS.
This all set the stage for both centers’ imminent closure.
Youth Welcome Center
The only youth in the Youth Welcome Center is a white teenage girl, who we will call Grace. Grace is wearing a freshly cleaned, bone-white sweatshirt, white sweatpants and canvas shoes with no laces. Her hair is cut short, boyish.
The eldest of the five welcome center workers in the room tries to engage Grace, then has trouble deciding whether to use “him” or “her” when talking to her co-worker. Grace is uneasy, fidgeting, plainly mad.
“I don’t want to talk to no counselor,” Grace says.
The workers are sitting around her in a semicircle while Grace kicks the loose leg of what looks like a dining room table. “You guys are irritating me,” she says. “I just want to leave.”
It won’t take her long.
She says she is going to the bathroom, but never comes back. Instead, one of the workers glumly reports that she has “AWOL’ed.”
“It’s unfortunate,” says Elia Godinez, the Youth Welcome Center’s manager. “She [Grace] feels helpless.”
When asked if the center should be closed, Godinez immediately says, “Yes,” and adds, “I wouldn’t want my children here.”
A few minutes later, in the courtyard that separates the youth and children’s centers, Trevino, who was also party to the scene, is frustrated. Back in her Command Post days, she never liked that the MacLaren staff had followed the kids there. When the Youth Welcome Center was opened in 2014, she says that the same workers – the ones who sat in a semicircle around Grace – once again followed the kids.
“We don’t have the right staff,” she says. “And we aren’t going to get the right staff, because this is DCFS.”
So, after years of struggling to get the department to more efficiently move the thousands of babies, children and teens who are removed from their homes every year into quality foster homes, Trevino is looking outside of DCFS.
The new plan she has created, which she says will start March 1, will rely on private providers to do the work.
But, if her collaborator down the hall, Astrid Heger, has her way, the Children’s Welcome Center isn’t going anywhere.
The Overstays Persisted
As early as August 2013, nine months before the youth center opened, the California Department of Social Services threatened to fine DCFS for persistent overstays at the children’s waiting center.
In February of 2015, the same Los Angeles Times reporter who had broken the story about Command Post’s having been converted into a waiting room for children and youth wrote a stark, character-driven feature on the lives of the youngsters rotating through the Youth Welcome Center.
Trevino says that the California Department of Social Services was well on its way to suing her agency, DCFS, before the Times piece appeared. In April of 2015, the state finally filed its suit.
The complaint lodged against the department said that because of the overstays, both the welcome centers were operating as unlicensed “community care facilit[ies].”
“Throughout 2014, the Department continuously monitored and engaged DCFS regarding the unlicensed operations and overstays at the CWC and YWC,” the suit reads. “Despite these efforts, and multiple plans of correction, the overstays at the CWC and YWC persisted.”
By the end of April 2015, DCFS and CDSS had hammered out a deal: either convert the welcome centers into 72-hour facilities–requiring more than $1 million in retrofits–or find someone who would meet the state licensing requirements.
DCFS’ choice: shutter the welcome centers and spread the children out to four private residential facilities scattered across the county.
In November of last year, DCFS sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors outlining its $12.26 million, three-year plan.
“The increased numbers of detained children combined with the dwindling number of available emergency placement options created an urgency to prevent overstays at the Department’s ERCP [Command Post], CWC and YWC,” the DCFS letter reads. “This heightened concern has led the Department to spearhead several different Emergency Shelter Care service initiatives to ensure children will have a safe and more structured out-of-home environment when removed from their homes in an emergency, 24-hours a day, and seven days a week.”
The way it will work, according to the board letter and Trevino, is that children who are detained after 5:00 PM, or who were detained earlier in the day and are still awaiting placement at 5:00, will be sent to one of four agencies: Junior Blind, Hathaway-Sycamores, Five Acres or David and Margaret.
In the agreement between the state and county, DCFS is required to describe how “it will provide or coordinate pre-admission medical and mental health screenings and ongoing supportive services.”
DCFS’ plan is to add another stop for every child entering the system after hours. Instead of going straight to places like Junior Blind or Five Acres, they will be taken to Heger’s VIP clinic – the only place in the county that has proven it can handle the huge numbers of traumatized and injured children passing from their abusers’ to DCFS’ hands.
An Alternate Plan
For the past 13 years, Astrid Heger has been deeply engaged in trying to improve the health of Los Angeles children caught up in the child protection system. Anchored by the VIP clinic at the County Hospital, she launched the HUB system, which provides screenings for thousands of children in the child welfare system.
When she realized that there was no way to track health outcomes, she created a computer program to do so and gifted it to the county.
In her mind, the children and youth centers are critical parts of the health infrastructure she has built, and should stay open.
Heger’s plan is simple: modify the protocols at the Youth Welcome Center to include the providers already named, and leave the Children’s Welcome Center alone.
Instead of shuttering the Youth Welcome Center, she would reserve it only for children entering the system for the first time. One of the major problems at the youth center were the youngsters who were treating it as a drop-in center, coming back when they ran out of food or money. In the worst cases, as described by the Times, pimps were using the center as a recruiting ground for the child sexual exploitation.
In the event that an adolescent already in the system shows up at the youth center, Heger thinks that DCFS should simply transport the youngster to one of the 72-hour-facilities with which the department will be contracting.
For those children who stay past the 24-hour mark at the Children’s Welcome Center, Heger says that they should also be sent to the 72-hour “decompression” sites.
“I am still hoping I can persuade the state to keep the Children’s Welcome Center open in some capacity to provide services to these kids as they move into foster care,” Heger says. “If not, I need to have a fall-back plan that provides medical and mental health assessments in order to ensure these children have the best possible transitions.”
She is planning to have a conversation with DCFS on Thursday, Feb. 18th, where she hopes to iron out a transition plan to make sure that every child is screened and has ongoing care, wherever their first stop into foster care is.