When Kathy Cline sought help at a downtown Los Angeles shelter with her 13-year-old son, it had been a long journey to that doorstep. She’d been sick and hospitalized, which led to her being unable to pay her rent. Eventually, she and her son became homeless. Instead of finding help at the shelter, the two were separated.
“Instead of providing us with emergency shelter, they called L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services,” Cline, now 63, recalled. “I was sent to the women’s home and my son to the youth home — we only saw each other on Sundays after church.”
Cline shared her story at the entrance of the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park on Thursday, where she and dozens of others — mostly mothers and grandmothers — held a rally to call for an end to what they say is a punitive response to poverty by the county’s child welfare system, which they say unnecessarily removes children from mothers and caregivers who find themselves unable to make rent and as a result, become homeless.
Held by the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network and the Poor People’s Campaign, the rally also marked the launch of a new handbook for parents called “Know Your Rights: What to do if your child is detained by the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.”
The 38-page booklet, which will be translated to Spanish next year, was written to help parents and caregivers navigate the foster care system, said Sydney Ross-Risden of Every Mother is a Working Mother Network.
“We also wrote the booklet to help build the movement to change this unjust welfare system which often confuses poverty with abuse and neglect,” Ross-Risden said. “We did the booklet to empower mothers and families with the information they need to bring their children home …We did it because black and brown families are the most impacted by this bureaucracy.
Included in the handbook are answers to questions on what to do if the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) visits and definitions of legal terms used in the courtroom, as well as tips such as:
- Keep a log of all information related to the case in the order in which the case develops, such as names, phone numbers and email addresses of all social workers, caseworkers, lawyers and judges involved.
- Keep all documents organized in a binder.
- Keep a list of mandatory or voluntary classes taken, counseling or other court-ordered classes attended and other information.
“Remember everything you say can and may be used against you, even if the social worker or others seem friendly,” according to the tips in the booklet. “And though you might not agree with what social workers and others involved in your case say or like how they talk to you, losing your temper will likely be used against you. Better to write a formal complaint rather than having a verbal confrontation.”
Ross-Risden said the handbook was compiled to bring awareness to what she and others from various organizations call a crisis in Los Angeles County and in other states.
Among big American cities, Los Angeles County has the third highest rate of removal – 20.3 per thousand impoverished children, according to data compiled by the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. There were 9,279 children removed from their homes in Los Angeles County in 2018.
Phoenix ranks first in the rate of removals into foster care, followed by Philadelphia, according to the data, which includes jurisdictions that oversee both city- and county-run child welfare agencies.
L.A. County is home to the largest county-run child welfare system in the nation. But African American youth are by far the most overrepresented racial group in foster care in the county. While black youth make up a little more than 7 percent of the county’s child population, they account for more than 27.4 percent of the children and youth in the county’s foster care system.
As homelessness continues to rise in L.A. County, Ross-Risden added that homeless mothers are also facing tough choices as many refuse shelters for fear their children will be taken and placed elsewhere. Among the nearly 60,000 homeless people counted this year in Los Angeles County, 9 percent are children living with family in shelters or on the street, a 5 percent increase from 2018, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said the goal of the department is to provide supportive services to families that promote reunification after both DCFS social workers and a dependency court judge find that a child is not safe at home.
“Our social workers engage with families to help identify solutions to ensure child safety that will help keep the family intact — oftentimes connecting families to critical resources so that they can provide what is necessary for the well-being of the children,” Cagle said in a statement to The Chronicle of Social Change.
But Sister Judy Vaughan, a nun and founding director of Alexandria House, a Los Angeles-based transitional housing shelter for women and women with children, called the child welfare system racist and classist.
“I worked with a mom who was unable to get her kids back for another six months because she didn’t have appropriate living room furniture. If that’s not poverty, classism, then what is?” Vaughan said at the rally. “This is so much like a penal system because moms are considered guilty until proven innocent. That’s not what is constitutional. Fact is, you are almost forced to do what you’re told to do because they hold our child hostage.”
Kathy Cline, who said she turned to a Los Angeles shelter for help and ended up being separated from her son by DCFS, was eventually reunited with her son, who graduated from college and will soon join the Army. But, she said, she and others believe the child welfare system is broken.
“I was glad that, despite this system set up for you to fail, I was able to get myself back together and be reunited with my son when he aged out of the child welfare system,” Cline said. “But no mother whatsoever should have to go through being separated from her children because they become homeless.”