Three months after Los Angeles County shifted many hard-to-place children in foster care from two emergency shelters to four private contractors, the issue of children staying too long before finding a home persists. In one crisis situation, children were returned to the Children’s Welcome Center.
In February, L.A. County’s Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) announced the closures of the Children’s and Youth Welcome Centers as part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought against the agency by the state. The lawsuit centered on chronic “overstays” by children at the facilities, which were licensed to keep children for up to 24 hours.
After closing the welcome centers, the county contracted with four private agencies to serve as temporary, 72-hour shelters for youth who have been removed from their biological family’s home or previous foster placement while the agency works to find them new homes.
But in recent weeks, some children have been temporarily placed at the Children’s Welcome Center for the first time since its closure.
DCFS Director Philip Browning described the use of the Welcome Center as an option the agency considers when caseloads rise above the 68 slots currently available through the four agencies.
“When we do have a situation where we exceed our capacity — which I can only think of one time where that’s occurred — then that would be the back-up site,” Browning said in an interview two weeks ago with The Chronicle of Social Change. “There are going to be peak periods when we’ll be full. Today it’s not — we have about 30 vacancies. This is like anything else. There’s peaks and valleys.”
Since the transition, there has been one weekend when such an option has been used, according to DCFS Senior Deputy Director Diane Iglesias.
“It was between three to five girls that were sent there,” she said of one night where the transitional shelters were at capacity. Those girls were sent to the Children’s Welcome Center for 12 hours, reportedly without incident.
Overall, DCFS Public Affairs Director Armand Montiel called the effort to replace the welcome centers with the new transitional shelters run by the four agencies “very successful.”
But he acknowledged that some of the same problems that initiated the lawsuit continue, despite the new approach. The definition of “overstays” has changed, with the new shelters licensed to house children for up to 72 hours instead of 24 hours. Yet even with the extended window of time in a 72-hour facility, the issue of overstays persists.
In 2014, roughly 7 percent of youth overstayed at the Youth Welcome Center, and 16 percent overstayed at the Children’s Welcome Center. At the new transitional shelters, there were 646 entries in March and April, and about 18 percent of those, or 118, were there for more than 72 hours, Montiel said.
Montiel stressed that comparing overstay rates between the two systems is comparing apples and oranges because now the definition of an overstay has changed. In addition to the new 72-hour limit, children are now staying at the facilities during the day while their social workers look for an appropriate foster home. Before, a youth may have left the Welcome Center for the day and the clock would have restarted upon their return.
But Montiel said the hardest-to-place children are still the ones most likely to stay past the new 72-hour limit.
“It remains difficult to find sufficient homes for those babies and infants, for those sibling groups, and for those teenagers that have challenges remaining in a stable home,” Montiel said. “And those difficulties are not going to change overnight.”
Even with the longer window of time, the overstay rate reinforces the need for more foster homes in which to place these children. Dr. Astrid Heger, a clinical pediatrician who helped create the two welcome centers, is familiar with the challenges of working with hard-to-place children. Her clinic continues to provide medical screenings to children during off-hours before they are taken to a placement.
“Overstays aren’t a result of 24 hours or 72 hours, they’re a result of not having enough places to put kids downstream,” Heger said. She stressed the continued need for children to receive mental health and medical screenings before placements, regardless of where that may be.
David & Margaret, one of the four agencies that has contracted to provide transitional shelter services, has a total of 16 beds that are part of the new program, 10 of which are in one of their residential cottages designated exclusively for 11- to 17-year-old girls. The other six are for 18- to 20-year-old females and their children, if they have any.
As far as the younger girls’ cottage is concerned, “in general it stays pretty full,” Executive Director Charles Rich said. “And we’ve been working with licensing to reduce the age [on the older beds] so that we could move other kids over there if the need were such,” said Rich, explaining that the older girls’ beds have been used less frequently.
David & Margaret reports to state licensing regarding their overstays, according to Rich. Under Michael Nash, the Office of Child Protection has also established a workgroup examining overstays at each of the new facilities.
Even with the new shelters, at the end of the day — or 72 hours — the task of finding new placements still falls to DCFS.
“We have reports three times a day where we’re looking at what kids are in the placements, what’re the needs of those children, what homes do we have available,” Iglesias said of DCFS’ efforts.
The final piece of the puzzle — finding enough foster homes that are prepared to support these children — remains elusive.