Newly available data from Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) shows that the county’s foster-parent recruitment crisis extends to most parts of the county.
The number of foster homes (including both county foster homes and private foster family agency homes) has dropped by 52 percent in the decade between 2005 and 2015.
The failure to provide foster homes has placed a strain on the county’s foster care system, particularly as the number of children entering out-of-home care has risen over the past several years.
As of November 2016, there were 4,018 licensed foster homes in the county (including both county and private foster homes), which translates to 9,193 beds in those homes. According to a geographical analysis of foster parents in the county, a vast swath of the county’s ZIP codes lack sufficient foster homes.
But the problem is particularly acute in parts of the county where higher numbers of children are entering the foster care system.
According to ZIP code-level data from DCFS, the department investigates about 83 percent of allegations of child abuse and neglect. In these cases, DCFS sent out a social worker to conduct an in-person investigation of the allegation when it met a definition of abuse, neglect, or exploitation according to the law.
While certain ZIP codes had relatively few investigations, several areas — including some parts of South Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley — had disproportionately high numbers of investigations.
In the Antelope Valley, an area that includes the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, rates of reported child abuse and neglect are higher than the rest of the county. But the area also has a greater concentration of foster homes than other areas in the county. The maps below include both county foster homes as well as homes with private foster family agencies (FFAs).
Still, it is often not enough to keep up with the number of children who need foster homes.
At the Children’s Bureau, one of the county’s largest foster-family agencies, finding enough foster families is a daily issue, according to Amy Heilman.
“There are many, many children that we can’t place and can’t help because we don’t have enough families,” said Heilman, director of foster care and adoption at the agency.
Heilman said that the Children’s Bureau receives about 50 requests for families a day. Most come from Los Angeles County, but she said that emails also regularly come from Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
“All these counties are competing, trying to find places for these children to go,” she said,
The agency had approximately 300 families in the last fiscal year, with about 150 children in care in a given month.
But the attrition of many foster parents due to adoption and reimbursement rates that have not risen very much over the past 20 years have made recruitment difficult for many FFAs, Heilman said.
The agency has two offices, one near the University of Southern California in South Los Angeles and the other in Palmdale, both of which are in close proximity to areas with the largest number of children entering the system. In South Los Angeles, it relies on two organizations, Child Share and Raise a Child, to provide recruitment services.
One outcome resulting from the lack of foster parents is the county’s reliance on shelter care, which recently expanded to include a series of four private shelters tasked with providing housing to children entering the system under a new, longer, 72-hour license.
The placement of many children in the Antelope Valley and other distant parts of the county presents a challenge to the child welfare system.
Because of the lack of foster homes, children in out-of-home care in Los Angeles County are not always placed close to the communities where they entered the system, complicating the task of reunifying children with birth parents when possible.
Court-ordered visitations – opportunities for birth parents to spend time with children in care – often mean travel times of two to three hours when children are placed in communities like Antelope Valley.
“It’s a huge problem for a lot of parents in our community,” said Kathy Icenhower, the CEO of SHIELDS for Families, a south Los Angeles service provider for children and families. “How can we be sure that our parents are getting the help they need in our treatment program when they have to travel three hours to see their children?”
DCFS has recently increased the number of staff who focus on foster parent recruitment in its bid to find and retain more foster parents.
Sari Grant, head of recruitment for DCFS, is hopeful that new regulations for foster parents under the California’s reform of its foster care system, slated to start in 2017, will also help the recruitment effort.
In the effort to boost the number of families available, DCFS also hopes to make greater inroads in community-specific outreach, including greater collaboration with the faith community.
“It takes a village to recruit a family,” Grant said,
But rebranding or new campaigns alone won’t make a difference in a crisis that touches many different parts of the county’s child-welfare system.
“There’s no magical slogan that everybody’s going to buy into,” Grant said. “Especially when you’re asking people to take in teens and sibling groups, there’s not going to be some magic way that’s going to get people to take teens.”
Arpita Sharma contributed to the data analysis and visualization.