Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is at a crossroads. While the number of children coming into the system steadily climbs, the number of suitable homes where they can be placed continues to dwindle.
Five years ago, in August of 2008, there were 17,140 children in out-of-home foster care. After dipping to as low as 15,000, the number has climbed back up to 17,389 children in August of this year.
During the same period, the number of beds available — whether in group homes, with kin or in traditional foster care — has dipped from 29,347 to 20,351, according to data compiled by DCFS.
While there are still more beds than children, the margin has grown precariously thin, with social workers having an ever harder time finding good placements for the wide range of children who come into the system with their own acutely different sets of needs.
The reasons for this decline are myriad, as are the department’s struggles trying to recruit and retain quality foster parents. Child welfare professionals and advocates say that the problems in recruitment and retention range from a county policy that requires all prospective foster parents to be certified for adoption; to the meager monthly allotments caregivers earn to care for children; and media coverage that often leaves the general public wary of taking the laudable, even heroic, step of becoming a foster parent.
At a press event celebrating family re-unifications held at the Edelman Courthouse in Montery Park last week, I ran into Leslie Heimov, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which provides legal representation for all the children who pass through L.A.’s juvenile dependency system. Heimov pointed to the county’s insistence on dually certifying caregivers for both foster care and adoption as dissuading many, by setting up yet another onerous step in an already daunting process.
“At the time it was proposed we voiced the view that we thought it was a bad idea,” she said. “It limited the pool of foster parents and we think it is a piece of the problem in the shortage of placements we are seeing.”
In an interview later the same day, DCFS Director Philip Browning sympathized, at least in part, with Heimov’s point. “I do think that it is an inhibiting factor,” Browning said.
Two problems he pointed to were the requirement that potential foster parents run two separate criminal background checks, often on their own dime; and that the adoption certification process forces them to dig back through their marriage histories even if they don’t intend on adopting in the long run.
He added that the department was looking for ways to streamline the process by relying on only the more stringent criminal background check, while allowing those foster parents who don’t plan on adopting to forgo the deeper dive into their marriage histories and other personal information.
Rhelda Shabazz, DCFS’ Deputy Director, Juvenile Court and Adoption Bureau, pointed to the benefits she sees with the more rigorous accreditation procedure for foster parents. “Our staff has endorsed this as an opportunity to do a deeper assessment of the homes where we place children,” Shabazz said.
While there appears to be a policy improvement that would allow for both rigorous foster parent assessment and diminished barriers for prospective foster parent, this is only one among many obstacles DCFS faces in finding and keeping foster parents willing to take children in. Principal among them is the patently inadequate foster care payments caretakers are allotted for taking in infants and young children.
“The amount we pay foster parents is very low, especially the payment for young children,” Browning said. “Parents say that infant formula, diapers and child care would take up their entire foster care payment.”
To assuage this, he said he has asked the state if his department can increase the amount of funding caregivers that take in small children receive. And, he said the department is trying to forge stronger partnerships with Head Start, Los Angeles Unified School District and other providers to offer more child care for stretched foster parents.
Another inhibitor to foster parent recruitment that Browning cited is the chilling effect de-contextualized media coverage around child deaths — particularly accidental deaths in foster homes — can have on the general public’s willingness to take children in.
Said Browning: “The news media has caused some people ask, is this is worth it? Is this is a risk worth taking?”
But, the media can also impel the public to step up. In a recent Los Angeles Times story, columnist Sandy Banks visits a foster parent orientation. In addition to cogently describing the hurdles that prospective foster parents face, she took an active role in joining in the solution by directing readers to information on how to become foster parents themselves.
Whether or not the department will improve or eliminate the adoption certification policy is yet to be seen. And while DCFS should pick the low hanging fruit, recruiting and retaining more foster parents is not up to the department alone. In respect to the example set by one Los Angeles Times columnist, I urge everyday Los Angelenos to consider how they can help.
Please visit DCFS’ “Share Your Heart” webpage to learn more about becoming a foster or adoptive parent.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.