Spotlight on Kids: L.A. County Fifth District Candidate Kathryn Barger

This week, The Chronicle of Social Change is publishing a series of posts from leading candidates vying for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Longtime Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich is being forced out by term limits after 36 years in office, and voters will go to the polls to select his successor starting on June 7. We asked these candidates to share their ideas on child welfare, juvenile justice, youth homelessness and education issues. To hear more about these issues, join us at a fifth district supervisorial candidates forum in Pasadena on May 10.

Kathryn Barger has spent more than 25 years working for current Supervisor Antonovich. She started as an intern before assuming the role of health and children’s deputy, and for the past 15 years Barger has served as chief deputy in Antonovich’s office.

Last year, Los Angeles County created the Office of Child Protection to ensure that child safety is embedded in all the county’s agencies and departments. What sort of child maltreatment prevention approaches and strategies should the county adopt and encourage to protect children?

Kathryn Barger
Kathryn Barger, candidate for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

The top priority is to better protect children and prevent their maltreatment in the first place with the parents and loved ones who are entrusted to care for these kids. We should focus our efforts on developing and expanding support systems for those parents who need guidance and services.

The county cannot do this alone. We must build partnerships and engage with our communities. Government cannot take the place of loving relatives, caring neighbors and reliable mentors.

However, government can work with our local communities to develop the support for families. We can help expand partnerships with organizations to explore programs like home visiting, parent-child interaction therapy and more connections for families. We can also start working more closely with the faith-based community to develop parenting partnership and mentorship programs.

And where there are not enough organizations and support structures in place, it is our job to help build that capacity and ensure that families have the tools and resources they need. This could range from access to substance-abuse programs and mental health services to job training and parenting classes. How can we expect families to heal when we can’t provide accessible programs and services within a reasonable time frame?

It is also important to note that one of the easiest ways we can improve how we work with families is to enable our social workers to do quality social work. We must continue to reduce caseloads so that social workers can improve their engagement and interaction with families. For too long, we have inundated social workers with paperwork, forms, and boxes to check, and have prevented them from actually doing the “social work” that our families so desperately need. In reaction to tragic fatalities or critical incidents, the county has created more onerous responsibilities, many of which have hampered true engagement and teamwork with the children and families they are meant to serve. We need to ensure that there are manageable caseloads, while also providing our workers with tools and resources that will help maximize quality interaction.

Los Angeles County finds itself in a foster parent recruitment crisis: the number of foster parent applicants is down 50 percent over the last decade. What would you do to better recruit and retain foster parents in the county?

First and foremost, we need to identify the right type of foster parents – or “resource parents” as they will now be known under the state’s congregate care reform. The county, foster family agencies, service providers and the philanthropic community need to identify what it means to be a “resource parent” and what types of individuals are the best to serve. We then need to actively recruit parents, within their local communities, among their friends and peers. We should also rely on our existing foster parents to speak with others about what it means to support children and families, and how they can be part of the solution. Becoming a foster parent is a big commitment, and for those that are not ready, we should encourage them to volunteer or mentor.

Second, foster parents (and relative caregivers) need support. Over the years, as recruitment has declined, we have heard many of the struggles facing “would-be” foster parents. These issues range from access to child care to onerous visitations to a lack of funding for immediate needs like an extra bed or diapers. We need to identify these issues and fix them. For example, last year the board was made aware that kids within the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) system are prioritized for subsidized child care, yet only children still at home with birth parents received the subsidy. Once a child was removed and placed into foster care, subsidized child care ended. Child care is a restrictive challenge for foster parents – especially if they work and cannot provide immediate daily care for a baby or small child.

Visitation requirements issued by the court are often burdensome; it sometimes falls on the caregiver to transport the child and even monitor the visit, with a range of frequency and duration. Possible solutions include working with the faith-based community to develop visitation centers with mentors and monitors, working with community organizations to contract out visitation monitoring and transportation, hiring more aides at DCFS to serve as monitors, and finally, working with the courts to clarify court orders and ensure children and their families receive the right amount of visits and services.

Los Angeles County has been confronted by a sharp uptick in homelessness. A large percentage of the homeless population are youth. How can the county better support these vulnerable youth and get them off the streets?

Study after study reveals the poor outcomes for foster youth who emancipate out of the system without the tools they need to be successful. There are two ways we can approach this issue.

The first is to continue and improve our efforts to find permanent placement for kids regardless of their age. We cannot give up on our older foster kids. And we need to evaluate pilot programs such as the residentially based services to make corrections and improvements to achieve permanency. The Probation Department has started to focus on adoption for some of their older kids. Efforts like these need to be expanded and replicated. Organizations like Kidsave focus on pairing older kids with the right family, and when there isn’t the right fit and connection, there is — at least — mentorship and adult support. We need to put more energy and resources into creative programs and efforts to find homes and families for older kids.

And for those youth who may not achieve permanency and age out of the system, it is imperative that we start self-sufficiency efforts at a very early age. For years, the self-sufficiency efforts at the county were aimed at youth who were about to transition out. And those services and programs were focused on trying to help kids find stable housing and employment. Now we know that self-sufficiency must start at a much earlier age – as early as 12 years of age. Any self-sufficiency efforts must include a major mental health component to ensure the emotional well-being of the child. We cannot expect our emancipated youth to sustain employment and stable housing if they don’t have the foundation for stability.

We have found that simply linking emancipated youth to shelters and social welfare programs does not work; in fact, it is a failure to the kids and to the system. We have to strive to support families and permanency where we can, and to teach our emancipated youth the fundamentals to be successful on their own.

Los Angeles County has the largest juvenile justice system in the country. According to a recent review of the Probation Department’s budget and practices, the yearly cost to the county for a youth at one of its juvenile halls was roughly $234,000. For a youth living in one of the county’s camps, a stay there comes to a little more than $200,000 a year. What would you do to lower costs and improve outcomes for the county’s embattled juvenile justice system?

I will review the completed fiscal analysis that is underway by the CEO now, which will help us better understand the cost per youth in our institutions. Based on the data, I would propose a four-pronged approach:

  • Ensure that the only the youth who should be confined in our institutions are those in our institutions (i.e., high risk and not for minor infractions, such as curfew violations).
  • Expand and enhance community-based programs for the youth who can be safely and effectively treated and supervised in the community. We have recently expanded our partnerships with community-based organizations like UCAN, Boys and Girls Clubs in San Gabriel and Santa Clarita Valleys, Asian Youth Center, and Mentoring and Partnership Program in Pasadena. I will also work with the Probation Department to establish a juvenile day reporting center in the Fifth District, which is in preliminary stages.
  • We need to do a better job of preventing the crossover of our foster youth into the juvenile-justice system. We know that there is a substantial link between children who are abused and neglected and subsequently enter the juvenile-justice system. We must continue to improve service coordination and integration between the Departments of Children and Family Services, Probation, Mental Health and Public Health to provide needed services to foster youth. And we need to effectively and efficiently link youth with substance abuse services which are available through Medi-Cal.
  • Given that the population of youth in our camps and halls has decreased by more than 60 percent in the last seven years and the on-going challenges in filling staffing vacancies, I will ensure that the human resources are deployed where there is the greatest need.

As research has demonstrated, the educational outcomes for foster youth are much worse than those of their peers in the general population. What can the county Office of Education do to support the success of foster youth in schools?

Without the fundamentals of completed education, foster youth are not equipped to obtain quality employment or maintain stable and long-term housing. However, we cannot rely on the County Office of Education (LACOE) to achieve desired educational goals for foster youth. Rather, we must partner with each of the 82 school districts within the county to identify what is needed to best meet the educational needs of our youth.

We need to recognize the distinctive qualities of each school district and create specialized programs for our foster youth. In addition, we need to support schools with high-need populations.

Through the Local Control Funding Formula, school districts receive additional funding for youth who are low income, non-English speakers or foster youth. Unfortunately, LACOE has no discretion or impact on how school districts choose to spend their money or how those programs may (or may not) positively impact foster youth. The real opportunity for the county is to work with the individual school districts, our DCFS education section and our group-home providers to discuss additional academic supports that will make a difference for foster youth. We can utilize LACOE as our lead collaborator to improve our partnership with the school districts.

We also need to do a better job of preventing multiple foster care placements that result in switching multiple schools. This should be a priority and goes back to the bigger issues – working with families early on so that kids don’t even enter foster care, and for those kids who are detained, we need to do a better job recruiting a broad range of foster families so that the first placement is the last placement and kids can stay in their local communities, amongst friends and loved ones.

We also need to look for creative ways to engage kids in school. Not every child is prepared to enter a four-year college. We need to create more opportunities for vocational and technical education so that foster youth have access to quality high-paying jobs in industries such as construction, healthcare and aerospace.

You can read responses from other candidates running for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors here. Stay tuned for more posts from candidates every day this week. You can RSVP for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Fifth District Forum on Children’s Issues on May 10 by clicking here.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 314 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.