Thursday, May 12, 2016
Grand jury: Orange County is failing foster children with 'insufficient and unsuccessful' efforts
Separating children from their families and placing them in the care of strangers “leaves a bloody scab on the psyche that may never quite heal,” wrote researcher Waln Brown, once a foster child, in a work poignantly quoted by the Orange County grand jury in a new report.
And Orange County’s most vulnerable children may fare worse, according to the highly critical probe released Wednesday.
The grand jury found the county’s child welfare agency fails “to provide safe, nurturing and permanent homes for those children who are considered ‘hard to place,’” including teens and children with serious medical and psychological needs.
“These vulnerable children often live in long-term foster care with little prospect of adoption, reunification with parents or placement with relatives,” said the 37-page report, which drew in part on Brown’s work.
“The result is that traumatized children spend months in shelters awaiting placement, endure multiple placements and/or separation from their siblings, thus suffering further psychological damage.”
The grand jury, serving in its role as a government watchdog, chronicled a woeful shortage of foster families in Orange County, “insufficient and unsuccessful” efforts to recruit more foster families and make them better and an over-dependence on private foster family agencies, which cost more and receive “an alarming lack of oversight” from county social workers.
The report also faulted county government for using too many mediocre foster families that had been the subject of complaints and not being aggressive enough in weeding out foster families in it for the money, which can range from $800 to $2,300 per month, per child.
Child welfare officials acknowledged a shortage of placement options for the most challenging children. But the grand jurors said Orange County cannot contribute to the neglect and abuse of already-victimized children “by simply declaring that ‘they present a problem,’ or ‘we are working on that,’ or ‘we don’t have funds.’”
“For those ... unmoved by moral and ethical arguments, it is important to consider practical realities. If foster care children are not given the opportunity to become healthy, educated, stable and contributing adults, the County will ‘pay’ later when they emancipate to unemployment, mental instability and prison.”
While there are loving and successful foster families, the report said interviews with volunteers and children’s advocacy organizations painted a bleak picture.
“They described homes where children were denied entry into the kitchen and to food available to other family members; they described foster parents who refused to allow children to participate in extracurricular activities because they were unwilling to provide transportation; they described foster parents who frequently told the children in their care how ‘expensive’ they were; they told the Grand Jury about children left behind when the family vacationed.
“One advocate expressed concern for a child who slept in the top bunk,” the report continued. “During the heat of the summer, the child asked her foster mother for a fan, but her request was denied because the parent was unwilling to pay the cost of electricity.”
Some children had 12 placements while under county supervision.
“Even current caregivers shared concerns about other foster parents they had encountered,” the report said.
“(T)hey believe some foster parents accepted multiple teens in their home because the pay is better for hard-to-place youth. Grand Jurors asked why the County would continue to place children with adults who received repeated formal and informal complaints. Most staff answered that the County needs beds.”
Concerns about the quality of foster care are not new, nor are they unique to Orange County.
California, however, performs worse than the nation when it comes to placing groups of three or more siblings who have been in the system for 24 months or longer.
And Orange County performed worse than the state, the grand jury found.
A new state law will make the job harder. It requires children to be placed in stable, supportive and permanent living situations – preferably in a family-like setting – as soon as possible, the grand jury noted.
County officials must file a formal response within 90 days. In the meantime, OC Social Services Agency spokeswoman Elizabeth DenBleyker said the recruitment of foster families has been and continues to be a county priority, “with a specific emphasis on locating and training families that can support the needs of sibling groups, adolescents, commercially sexually exploited children and those with medical needs.”
The Social Services Agency has developed a plan to enhance recruitment and retention, DenBleyker said. The county asked the state for $6 million to fund this effort; the state approved $1.27 million.
The county has placed more emphasis on services to keep children safely in their homes, she said. As a result, those who do enter the child welfare system have very complex needs, and it takes longer to reunify them with their families, she added.
Just 5.8 percent of O.C. children reunified with their families were back in the system within a year, DenBleyker said. The comparable figure for the state is 12.1 percent, she said.
“What this means is that, although further work needs to be done to return children home sooner, we are ensuring that families are ready when we do reunify children, so that very few children re-enter the system after returning home,” she said.
William Steiner, former county supervisor and director of the county-run Orangewood Children’s home, knows how difficult and heartbreaking finding homes for “hard to place” foster youths can be.
“Consider that most are rebellious teenagers and many have deep psychological problems,” he said. “Families who want to be part of the foster care system and open their homes and hearts to these youths simply aren’t equipped for the task at hand.”
There are solutions, Steiner said. They include: recruiting and training families that have exceptional parenting skills; limiting hard-to-place youth to no more than two in the same home; and providing intensive, daily professional support services to foster families that take such children.
“But also focus on positive behavior and reward it,” he said. “Provide the foster parents with a level of income where one or both parents could devote full-time care to a youth. Recognize that if the youth ends up in juvenile hall, jail or a psychiatric hospital the cost is far higher. And arm the foster parent with tremendous patience and a few prayers.”
The grand jury had several suggestions as well.
It wants to see greater use of the Samueli Academy, a public charter high school dedicated to providing a “transformational learning environment” for foster and low-income youth. The academy offers consistency, stability, and a supportive community – but just 17 of its 375 students are from foster care, the grand jury said.
Orangewood Children’s home, county-owned and operated and used as an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children, can play a bigger role as well, it said. It includes six large residence cottages, a school, gymnasium, playground, pool and library. It has beds for more than 130 children, but its current average population is 68.
“With some creative thinking and remodeling, the cottages at Orangewood could become individual ‘homes’ for large sibling sets, medically fragile youth and the foster parents willing to care for them,” the grand jury said.
The Samueli Academy is a project of the Orangewood Foundation.
“We need to clean up some misconceptions,” said Anthony Saba, head of school for the Samueli Academy. “Sometimes people think these kids are all troubled, breaking the law – but that’s just not true. These are good kids with good hearts who are in tough circumstances through no fault of their own. Some just need a new start, a different environment. ”
Teenagers rise to the expectations of teachers, peers and parents, said Sara Bazant, marketing director for the Orangewood Foundation - and those expectations can, and should, be set high.
While most communities are grappling with foster care, “every county has an ethical responsibility to care for its children – all of its children, regardless of how difficult the task," the grand jury said. "Statements of need and intent must be followed up with genuine efforts, with resources and with dedicated staff.”
May 11, 2016
The Orange County Register
By Teri Sforza