As we reported last week, Los Angeles County’s child protection administration plans on closing two 24-hour shelters for abused children and youth next month.
The impending closure is significant in that both the Children’s and Youth Welcome Centers were initially heralded as positive steps toward stabilizing traumatized children during the fitful first hours after being removed from their families’ homes.
But repeated instances wherein children stayed past the 24-hour limit set by the state resulted in a California Department of Social Services suit against the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) last year.
The ensuing settlement, in April, prompted DCFS to adopt a new plan for temporarily sheltering children and youth when they first enter foster care or bounce out of a foster home, placement with family members or a group home.
The full plan, which has yet to be shared publicly, will rely on four private residential treatment agencies to provide 72-hour “Transitional Shelter Care” for the children who would otherwise have ended up at the welcome centers. Those centers are currently housed on the expansive Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center campus, while the new transitional shelters will be scattered across the county.
“What is going to happen to these kids at these places?” asked Michael Nash, the director of the county’s Office of Child Protection. “Are they equipped to give these kids any services and counseling in the interim? What kind of process are they setting up to get them out in a reasonable amount of time, and in a meaningful way?”
And what I mean by meaningful is not just saying that I got you a bed.”
Leaders from three of the four non-profits contacted for this story were confident that they would do a good job handling the thousands of children who are expected to pass through their hands. But one of those providers was also candid about how the new plan will not be able to solve old problems unless there are bigger changes at the Department of Children and Family Services.
“It is exciting for us to offer them [the children] so much more,” said Corina Casco, the vice president of child welfare and residential services for Junior Blind of America, one of the four agencies set to receive a portion of the three year, $12.26 million allotment DCFS is setting aside for the plan. Casco said that the staff at the welcome centers were “doing the best that they could,” adding, “we are hoping to do similar and better.”
Junior Blind, a 60-year-old agency that has historically serviced blind children and youth, has been moving into child welfare over the past decade. Currently, the agency contracts with DCFS to house 32 medically fragile, mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed children, according to Casco.
The new contract would pay for an additional 26 beds to provide 72 hours of shelter to infants, toddlers and children from birth to age five. While Gasco would not disclose the location, she said that Junior Blind was currently retrofitting a two-story structure that will provide shared bedrooms and two nurseries. Currently, all the children who end up at the welcome center stay in one large repurposed daycare facility.
She said that Junior Blind’s mental health practitioners and medical staff would be on call to help children cope with the stress, fear and sadness that comes with being removed from their homes and enduring abuse. Beyond the actual services, Gasco said that children would be able to access the Junior Blind campus just north of Inglewood, replete with a gym, basketball courts, a bowling alley, open spaces and a playground.
“We know they are coming in traumatized, so we want to provide them as many services and activities as possible,” Gasco said.
Forty miles to the east, in the community of La Verne, lies David and Margaret Youth and Family Services’ sprawling 17-acre campus. Under DCFS’ plan to shutter the welcome centers, David and Margaret will take in girls ages 11 to 17 who may have a history of commercial sexual exploitation; as well as young women from ages 17 to 20 who may already have children of their own.
David and Margaret also currently contracts with DCFS to house children and youth in a 30-day shelter, in addition to running facilities for longer-term placements.
Charles Rich, David and Margaret’s executive director, remembers setting up the 30-day shelter in 2007. The existing agreement with DCFS states that the department has to set up a “Team Meeting” within seven days of the child being placed at one of the half dozen cottages dotting the La Verne campus.
Those meetings are meant to provide a space where the child’s social worker, the service provider, the child and any other people important to the child’s life can come together to make big decisions like where he or she should go next.
“At the Team Meeting, important information will be gathered about strengths and needs that contribute to the overall assessment of the Child,” the agreement reads.
Rich says since January 2015 DCFS has executed only one of these team meetings, and met with his staff face-to-face only twice. The rest of the time, placement decisions are made in a phone call.
This, Rich says, makes it harder to find permanent homes in the 30-day window. The answer for some agencies in this situation is to drop the children and youth off at the welcome centers near the 30-day mark, just to pick them up again the next day to avoid violating the contract. The sleight-of-hand Rich describes here is reminiscent of the charge that DCFS would move the kids out of the welcome centers near the 24-hour mark just to bring them back hours later.
When making a placement decision, “the more information we have the better,” Rich said, emphasizing the importance of holding the team meetings. “One way or another, we have to get to that or it [the 72-hour shelter care plan] is not going to work. We can’t be a warehouse for kids. Sometimes I feel like people like to think that is what we are, but we are not.”
Rich is already anticipating that some of the girls and young women sent to David and Margaret will be transferred from the new 72-hour facility to the existing 30-day shelter and finally wind up in long-term care there.
Casco of Junior Blind says that her organization is ready to move children with special needs over to her facilities’ longer-term care. “We do place lots of kids with diabetes,” she said. “So it would make sense that we would be able to transition kids on campus if we had a slot available.”
Despite the reality that some children will stay beyond the initial 72 hours, each of the four facilities will have DCFS staff on site to help speed placements.
Twenty-seven miles northwest of David and Margaret in Altadena is Five Acres, a 128-year-old youth services agency that will contract with DCFS to serve girls ages six to 14.
While the agency declined to comment for this story, it issued a statement on February 4th celebrating its contract with DCFS.
“It was vital for Five Acres to respond to the needs of our children and community in providing a safe and supportive temporary haven for girls and in keeping siblings together during the first hours and days of separation from their families,” said Chief Program Officer Gina Perez in the statement.
Down the road from Five Acres, in Pasadena, Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services will provide 16 beds for boys ages six to 17.
Hathway-Sycamores CEO Debra Manners says that the plan will be better for the boys coming to her campus because of the way it is set up and the services offered.
Instead of the “institutional” setting of the welcome centers, Hathaway-Sycamores is a four acre campus dotted with houses.
“They look like your house or my houses,” Manners said. “They are very welcoming and very warm.”
When asked if dispersing the children and youth to four locations in different corners of the county would make the children more “invisible” as some detractors have charged, Manners was nonplussed.
“I don’t know why location will influence visibility,” she said. “This issue has become very visible to the county Board [of Supervisors], and I believe it will remain so.”
Meanwhile, as these four agencies prepare for an influx of children and youth who would otherwise have gone through the welcome centers, efforts are afoot to derail the county’s plan.
Today, Astrid Heger, one of the main architects of both welcome centers, will meet with officials from the California Department of Social Services to try to find a way to keep at least the Children’s Welcome Center open.