The most recent article in the Los Angeles Times series entitled, “The Child Mill,” exposed yet another failed organization that seemingly took advantage of the funding in the foster care system to benefit itself with little regard for the children entrusted to its care. The article revealed another frightening example of a system unable to safeguard children who are very vulnerable. To be fair, I’m sure there is another side to the story of the rise and fall of the Wings of Refuge foster care agency, but there are enough alarming details to certainly question its capacity to effectively provide foster care. If nothing else, the reference by its executive director to what she called, “professional foster children” is an indicator of an attitude toward these children that is not acceptable.
That being said, the problem with these articles is that it paints a picture in very broad strokes, portraying many involved in providing foster care as either a group of ineffective, naïve, do-gooders at best or as a group of scheming, self absorbed, opportunists at worst. For the vast majority of providers of foster care services neither is true. Foster care is a highly regulated field of service that is essential to the child welfare system and, in most instances, is an indispensable resource to very vulnerable children and their families. It is also a relatively sophisticated system of care with clearly established standards of care and operations monitored strictly by both the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and Community Care Licensing. So how can such blatant abuse occur?
As a provider of foster care services, I can attest to the multiple and redundant systems utilized to monitor the safety and well-being of those we serve. In addition, the county employs a legion of auditors who on a regular basis review all aspects of our operations and governance. As an institutional provider of foster care services, Hillsides is held accountable by such a rigorous system of checks and balances. How is it that organizations like Wings of Refuge were able to operate so poorly for so long without some intervention? Could it be that in an attempt to expedite and facilitate the recruitment and development of these desperately needed homes, the county relaxed its requirements? If so, then DCFS needs to re-examine its policies since clearly the best interests of children have not been served by such facilitation.
What is the solution? Most recently, the Child Welfare Institute in Los Angeles has set out on an ambitious study of how best to recruit foster families. The institute has helped identify not only who are the ideal foster families, but how to be supportive of these extraordinary individuals and families who welcome into their homes children who otherwise would be deprived of a home like setting while separated from their families. The fact is that overall Los Angeles has been able to assemble a system of care that provides a fair amount of early intervention for families at risk of being separated and as a result, many families have the resources they need to stay together. However, for those families whose circumstances call for a period of separation, it is absolutely imperative that we are able to provide them with safe, reliable, and effective foster homes.
The solution lies not just with early intervention and an effective system of foster homes, but also an ability to tap into the tremendous resource available through organizations like Hillsides who are equipped to provide a very integrated array of services to the children and families, who after any number of interventions, still require a more intensive treatment program. The solution has to do with developing a full array of services that can best be tailored to address the considerable challenges these children and families confront. I would suggest that for some of these families using a more comprehensive initial assessment would lead to the development of more effective plans of treatment and hopefully reduce significantly the number of failed interventions that can have a very negative impact on both the child and family.
Although there are no simple solutions, the task is not as complicated as it may seem. There are many models both locally and nationally that would help identify effective strategies to address the needs of children served by the child welfare system. With any luck, the recently established Blue Ribbon Commission will be able to help sort these issues out and develop a plan of action that will help DCFS eliminate the child mill atrocities exposed by the Los Angeles Times.