L.A. County Looks to Ridesharing, Faith-Based Programs to Improve Family Visitation for Foster Kids

In an ambitious upcoming board motion, a pair of Los Angeles County Supervisors aim to tackle two of foster care’s most fundamental challenges: re-unifying children with their parents and retaining quality foster parents.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Michael Antonovich’s comprehensive vision encompasses a wholesale revamping of the county’s efforts to ensure that foster children have timely and meaningful visits with their biological parents.

But improving “family visitation” is a tall order in a county with 20,000 miles of road and nearly 18,000 foster children and youth.

Supervisors Kuehl and Antonovich will present their motion before the full board on September 6. In it, they describe three entry points for ameliorating the county’s fractured family visitation apparatus: transportation, improved monitoring and more welcoming environments to conduct the visits.

The solutions considered include using ride-sharing services like Uber or HopSkipDrive to get parents and kids to and from family visits, hiring more county staff and employing the faith-based community to enlist volunteers to monitor visits.

“Because we already ask so much of our current and prospective foster parents, it’s important that the county be as supportive as possible to families who are stepping up to provide a temporary safe and loving home for our kids,” Kuehl said in an email statement sent to The Imprint. “This motion moves us in the right direction toward providing the kind of resources our foster parents need.”

Maryam Fatemi, a deputy director at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) overseeing family visitation, welcomes the motion.

“I like to say that visitation is the heart of reunification,” Fatemi said. “With ongoing positive, purposeful visitation reunification will be expedited.”

But the ongoing, positive and purposeful part has long been a stumbling block in the nation’s largest foster care system.

Ubering Foster Care

Ericah Thomas is what DCFS calls a human services aide, or HSA. The 34-year-old is one of 328 HSAs, who are the department’s closest thing to family visitation specialists. With 3,700 child social workers, close to 35,000 ongoing cases and a budget of $2.2 billion, it is hard to imagine how so few aides can make a dent in the largest child welfare system in the world.

Think about it this way. If every child had a one-hour visit with their family per week – which is far less than the court guidelines recommend – you are talking 920,140 hours of visitation or 105 years of visits each year. This, of course, excludes transportation.

“There are literally not enough of us,” Thomas said.

Much of Thomas’ time is spent in her car. Before buying a larger sedan, she traversed Los Angeles County’s 4,000 square miles in a two-door Fiat.

It was in that car that she remembers transporting a brother and sister, 9 and 12, to a visit with their father. They were nervous during the five-mile drive. It was the first time they would see their father since being removed for allegations of sexual abuse.

Thomas told the children to make eye contact with her in case they felt uncomfortable during the visit, in which case she would cut it short.

“Having the ability to talk to the children as part of the transport is very important,” Thomas said, adding that such interaction would be “challenging” with a ride-sharing service like Uber or even those tailored to children like HopSkipDrive or Zum.

But that is exactly what the supervisors want to explore, according to the board motion that will be introduced on Tuesday of next week.

“Given the emerging industry of ride sharing, companies may be able to transport birth parents closer to the child,” the motion reads. “Other companies specialize in driving unaccompanied minors, requiring drivers with caregiving experience to be vetted and live-scanned.”

Currently the county uses a hodgepodge of transportation ranging from the severely understaffed HSAs to rides from social workers or requiring foster parents to drive kids often-long distances across traffic-choked Los Angeles.

In September of 2015, the county’s Commission for Children and Families issued a report on the since closed children and youth welcome centers. The question the commission asked was why so many children were staying too long at the facilities.

One conclusion that was there was simply a dearth of foster homes, and that transportation to and from family visits was part of the problem.

“Foster caregivers are required to transport children to a sometimes prohibitive number of court-ordered visitation sessions with parents, siblings or family members, particularly for infants,” the report reads. “We all agree on the crucial importance of visitation, however, the court does not require that foster parents must be the ones who provide transportation and monitoring; alternative arrangements should be sought and explored.”

Commissioner Wendy Smith said in a recent interview that hiring more HSAs and using ride-sharing services could take some pressure off foster families.

But she pointed out that “what happens to and from is part of the visit.”

Smith, a licensed clinical social worker, said that it was critically important to make sure the drivers are conscious of the effects of trauma, and suggested that some kind of training be made available for both HSAs and ride-sharing services.

HopSkipDrive is a Los Angeles-based ride-sharing company focused on transporting kids age six and up. While the company is yet to provide trauma-training to its drivers, it does run them through a 15-point eligibility test that includes finger print scans, driving histories and documentation of five years of childcare experience.

Founder and CEO Joanna McFarland said that while she did not envision HopSkipDrive filling in on every foster care case, she did see her company as “part of the solution.”

“Driving any kid is a great responsibility and we take that very seriously,” McFarland said. “Our mission is to make life easier for busy families and families come in all shapes and sizes. So we see this as being completely aligned with our mission.”

More than a Ride

During the visit with their father, the 9-year-old boy became nervous. He shot Ericah Thomas, the human services aide, a look.

“The younger child was uncomfortable, so I took him upstairs,” Thomas said. They were at the DCFS office in Pasadena.

Thomas says that these visits are critical both for parents trying to reunify, and for supplying monitors like her with details that can help the court determine whether a child should go home.

“They are a pivotal moment for the parent and the child,” Thomas said. “We get to see how they [parents and children] engage in a comfortable setting, which speaks to their ability to reunify. And if they can’t engage or even show up, how can you reunify?”

Research has shown that effective visitation is associated with heightened rates of reunification.

The board motion calls for exploring visitation models to augment the work of overstretched HSAs, social workers and foster parents.

One example is Family Connect Pasadena, a program run out of All Saints Church.

In 2012, leaders from DCFS’ Pasadena office came to All Saints, and asked members of its Foster Care Project to train and recruit volunteers to monitor visits.

CREDIT: All Saints, This is the DCFS observation room after the All Saints volunteers spruced it up.

The DCFS observation room after the All Saints volunteers spruced it up. Photo: All Saints Church

Gail Bardin, the lead coordinator of Family Connect, says that she spent a year studying how to pull it off. By Valentine’s Day 2013, they launched and quickly recruited volunteers within their church to monitor visits at a fishbowl-like observation room at the DCFS office in Pasadena.

Today they have 15 volunteers serving roughly 10 families. Volunteers stay with families, much like Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, stay with one case from start to finish.

Bardin says that they recruit volunteers “who really want to make a difference and feel that what they do matters.”

Bardin says that there are a lot of “good parents,” who get involved with the foster care system. “But they have a drug habit,” and because of this, “many parents really don’t know how to play with their children.”

The volunteers help with that.

In the coming months All Saints will expand the program from three to seven sites, including three in or around Highland Park where there is a heightened need.

In a statement sent to The Imprint, Supervisor Mike Antonovich called out All Saint’s Family Connect program in particular.

“Family visitation programs such as the one created by All Saints Church are an important part of the reunification effort,” Antonovich said in the statement. “It is a testament to the benefits of partnerships with the faith-based community, where we can achieve better outcomes for families by working with local churches, synagogues and other faith-based centers. Through this motion, the County will create additional successful visitation programs that include mentorship and help ensure shorter stays in out-of-home placements and greater chances for reunification.”

In the case of the 9 and 12-year-old siblings that Thomas took to that first visit, reunification was not in the cards.

During their third visit, the children did not know that this would be the last time they would see their father before his parental rights were terminated – maybe one of the last times that they would ever see him.

Thomas says that she used the time during the ride home to tell them what could happen.

“They were comfortable with whatever decision was made,” Thomas said. “But the child who was offended against didn’t want to go back.”

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