When Heather was 15, her placement near the San Fernando Valley high school she loved fell apart. Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had hopes of placing her with her grandparents, who lived close to school. But when it became clear that wouldn’t work out, she was sent to live with family members in neighboring Ventura County.
With the move came a series of administrative complications and simple geographic barriers that made an already difficult experience for Heather harder than it had to be.
In the course of reporting this story, I talked to Heather’s social worker from those days in 2009, Christina Lee. While Lee was equanimous about the reasons for sending children across county lines and the consequences of so doing, she did mention that the department’s Juvenile Court Transportation and Shelter Care Section did not operate across L.A. county lines.
L.A. is ahead of most counties, dedicating $3.2 million a year to a 31-van fleet to get kids to juvenile dependency court and the hearings where fundamental decisions about their lives are made. But those vans simply do not go where L.A.’s 3,750 out-of-county kids are.
“Many counties don’t bring kids to court at all,” said David Estep, a firm director at the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents Los Angeles children involved in the child welfare system. “I have been here for 22 years, and the idea has always been that if you have a client that wants to go to court, you bring them to court. Clients have a right to attend hearings and their input and participation is essential in ensuring their positions are fully presented to the court.”
But, in regard to out-of-county youth, he added, “If you are going half way, maybe you should just go all the way.”
DCFS’ court transport unit, with a staff of 32, has protocols for what to do with kids who are living across county lines, but this is hardly a guarantee that those kids get their day in court. And, while DCFS is living up to the letter of a 2008 law promising more court access for foster youth, the fact that department vans only go “half way” for out-of-county kids betrays how, so often, legislation that sounds good in a press release has little bite in the real world.
In this case, the law in question, AB 3051, was sponsored in reaction to a series by journalist Karen de Sá. That series “Broken Families, Broken Courts” showed, among general dysfunction in dependency court, how foster youth were often absent from their all-important juvenile dependency hearings. While well-intentioned, lawmakers championed a bill that promised court access but failed to account for transportation. Seven years on, and my reporting shows little evidence that the law had much effect.
But before coming back to the theme of weak legislation for foster kids, let’s take a deeper look at how Los Angeles is getting out-of-county kids to court.
As of August 2015, there were roughly 3,750 Los Angeles County foster youth living out of county, according to DCFS, or 18 percent of youth in care. This is slightly lower than the overall state average of 20.2 percent.
At the start of 2015, numbers pulled from the Center for Social Science Research’s Child Welfare Indicators Project housed at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare show that the majority of L.A.’s out-of-county youth live in San Bernardino (1,626), Riverside (872) or Orange (392) Counties. Understanding this, DCFS protocols regarding the Court Transportation Unit make special arrangements for children and youth in those three counties. It is up to social workers, or private foster family agencies or relative caregivers to get the other 900 or so out-of-county youth to court.
For kids coming from the big three counties, L.A. County children’s social workers are instructed to arrange travel to the DCFS Pomona Office on the northeastern edge of Los Angeles County.
“This is a courtesy arrangement and may not be available on certain days,” the protocol reads. “When this service is not available, the CSW [children’s social worker] is responsible for arranging the child’s transportation.”
While this is a partial fix, Juvenile Court Transportation and Shelter Care Program Manager Janice Johnson said that it is likely that out-of-county foster youth are missing their hearings, largely due to the insanely long hours they would have to log to get to court and back.
“I would imagine some workers are waiving children’s court appearances,” Johnson said.
She used the example of a foster youth living in Victorville, set 60 miles northeast from the Pomona office in the sparse desert country of San Bernardino County.
“To get them in court, sometimes you have to get them up at 4 in the morning,” she said. “You cannot predict how long they will be in court. If they are leaving at 5 [p.m.], they won’t get home until 7:30 in the evening.”
In an earlier story in our “Out of County, CA” series, Gregory Stock, assistant regional administrator for DCFS’s Out of County Services Division, said that cheaper real estate and an overall lower cost of living has likely driven a swell in foster placements in counties like San Bernardino.
“It’s not that we have an inherent desire to drive out to San Bernardino County but that’s where our foster parents have chosen to locate, and I think a lot of it is economics,” Stock said.
Economics, a desire to keep children with family and the fact that child welfare is administered at the county level as opposed to the state are some reasons why almost 13,000 of California’s nearly 63,000 children are living out of county. The consequences range from degraded access to mental health services, complicated re-unifications with parents, confusion about health care to fewer opportunities for foster youth to attend juvenile dependency hearings.
In 2008, Karen de Sá, one of California’s last great investigative reporters, published a searing series on the state of California’s juvenile dependency courts in The San Jose Mercury News.
In an interview last week, de Sá recalled then-Assemblyman David Jones having read her series and latching onto the story of 14-year-old Zairon Frasier, who “ traveled by bus and BART, navigating strange cities from San Pablo to Oakland,” to get to his juvenile dependency hearings.
Jones wanted to do something, but it was 2008 and the state budget was cratering. He wound up introducing Assembly Bill 3051, which said that foster youth over the age of 10 have the right to know of and attend their own hearings.
“They [Jones and other legislators] wanted to say we are going to do right by this kid,” de Sá said. “So they get a law passed that doesn’t cost any money that does something about kids appearing in court.”
What the law did not stipulate was who is responsible for getting kids there, leaving its impact as varied as are California’s 58 counties.
It was an illustrative moment to catch up with de Sá. She was putting the finishing touches on a story that ran in the Labor Day edition of the Mercury News. The story was an outgrowth of her widely read 2014 investigative series on the over-prescription of psychotropic medications to California foster youth.
The Labor Day story described how a four-bill package meant to curb the over-prescription of psych meds has been gutted in the legislative process, with a key bill that focused on the courts’ role in overseeing prescriptions being withdrawn. Legislators also stripped another bill of state dollars that would have been used so that public health nurses could monitor prescriptions.
“It’s the same thing,” de Sá said of the court-access bill and this latest pysch med bill package. “You start off with something really good and then it gets whittled down. You come out of the sausage factory not with what you went in with.”
When asked about the efficacy of AB 3051, senior staff at the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, a powerful membership organization representing many of the state’s group-home and foster-care providers, had little idea how foster youth were able to access court hearings.
“I am not sure who is taking the child physically to court,” said Doug Johnson, the alliance’s associate executive director. “That could vary enormously by county.”
While Johnson imagines that other counties offer transportation, Los Angeles’ robust transportation system is an outlier.
Janice Johnson, who runs L.A.’s court transportation unit, said that her 30 drivers take about 1,000 kids to and from court every month. Johnson does not have a tally of how many are coming from across county lines.
“There are lots of caveats you don’t have control over,” she said. “But the expectation is that you overcome them all and children show up at court.”
On those long trips from the Pomona office, Johnson said, the drivers have to become “connected” to the children.
“Talking about out of county, the drivers are spending the whole day with that child,” she said. “The driver may be the second or third face the child is seeing as a representative of the department.”
But, Johnson said, by the end of the long journey, the driver is not really a stranger anymore.
“Sometimes they are walking in holding the driver’s hand.”