Facing a rising number of children in care in the county and looming statewide reforms, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal yesterday that would seek ways to invest in finding immediate placements with family members for children entering the county’s child-welfare system.
The board’s motion called on the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the Office of Child Protection (OCP), the Probation Department and county’s juvenile courts to develop a program that would spend more resources to find and place children with relatives or non-related extended family members as soon as they enter the child-welfare system. That includes studying best practices of other jurisdictions across the nation and developing a single protocol for family-finding programs employed by Probation and DCFS.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others point to evidence that shows that living with relatives or other non-related extended family members can have behavioral and educational benefits for children, as well as an increased likelihood of permanency.
“I want the first placement to be the best placement,” Kuehl said. “The reason I want to move it up in time so that we’re looking right away for relatives and appropriate family friends is that the children are already seriously traumatized by the removal. If there are any family members or family friends that they have a connection with, we can really mitigate those traumatic events.”
Under the sweeping congregate-care reforms (CCR) outlined in Assembly Bill 403, California is poised to restructure the way it provides care to the nearly 58,000 children in its child-welfare system. Starting in 2017, California counties will be encouraged to seek family-like settings for these children. Instead of group home placements, children will be placed with foster families or in short-term residential treatment centers when clinically necessary.
In the near future, that means the county must find more homes for these children. Los Angeles County hopes to it can make up the difference with more relative caregivers, an area where it has seen some success.
According to data from the California Child Welfare Indicators Project at U.C. Berkeley, almost 44 percent of children in the county’s child welfare system were living in the home of a relative at of the start of the year.
“We want all kids to be placed with relatives if at all possible,” DCFS Director Philip Browning said. “Congregate care reform is going to require that we be much more sensitive to making placements with relatives.”
Los Angeles County is also dealing with an increasing number of children who have entered the system. Since 2013, the total number of children in care in has risen to 20,982 from 19,034, placing an additional pressure on the county to find homes for these youth.
With the county already dealing with difficulties in placing both older foster youth and young children, advocates and policymakers say that recent criminal prosecution of four Los Angeles County social workers in the Gabriel Fernandez case has led to an uptick in children entering the system.
Kuehl says that some county social workers are now exercising “an abundance of caution.”
“We have more children being removed because social workers don’t want to leave them in a difficult situation, even though they might have in the past done a little more family building or family helping or cut the family a little more slack,” she said.
Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors motion, which was sponsored by Supervisors Kuehl and Hilda Solis, will attempt to boost the number of relative caregivers by using upfront family finding, a practice that tasks social workers with seeking out and engaging family members for children living in foster care.
Some family members may be estranged or hard to locate, but identifying and finding these family members may provide opportunities to support the children with families and friends, and potentially prevent an out-of-home placement like a stay in a group home.
OCP Director Michael Nash, who oversaw the county’s juvenile courts for many years, says that placements with relatives are often more stable for children, offering them a sense of belonging during traumatic times.
Investing in ways that link children with relatives early on, he says, prevents difficult situations and additional placements later.
“It is important that relatives be found and evaluated as early as possible in the process so that we avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful litigation when relatives appear after a child has been in foster care for a considerable period of time,” Nash said.
Both DCFS and the Probation Department have small programs that seek out relatives and other extended family members of children who are detained and separated from their families. The county has pointed to the success of DCFS’ Permanency Partners Program (P3) as a way the county can succeed with upfront family finding. The P3 program employs retired and part-time social workers to locate family and non-related extended family members.
Started in 2004 to find family members for hard-to-place older youth, the unit began providing upfront family-finding services in 2011. The county hopes that an expansion of this type of family-finding services will help yield more homes and better outcomes for children
Opportunities for family finding vary widely across the county, according to SHIELDS for Families CEO Kathy Icenhower.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any consistent plan in place,” Icenhower said. “It’s really dependent on whether or not you have a good [social worker] who puts the effort into it.”
A report on family finding is due back to the Board of Supervisors in four months.