A Judge’s Perspective: Distant Placements and Reasonable Services

Out-of-county placements and distant placements have a profound effect on children, their parents and the prospects for family reunification. As a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge sitting in dependency for more than 13 years, and Supervising Judge for the last ten of those years, I have observed that, over the years, more and more children were placed out of county and in distant in-county locations.

The series of articles by The Chronicle on out-of-county placements is important and timely. In a large county such as Los Angeles, distant placements have many of the same effects as out-of-county placements. Some of the benefits for children of being placed in their home County of Los Angeles are that the children can still have a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) appointed for them, can still receive county services and assistance, and their social workers are more familiar with services available. Still the distance is detrimental and should be of equal concern as out-of-county placements.

The increasing use of distant and out-of-county placements raises concerns about the effects on children and their families, and raises issues about whether the government is meeting its legal obligations to make reasonable efforts and “provide services reasonably believed to facilitate the return of the child to the custody of his or her parent or legal guardian,” as required by Welfare and Institutions Code, § 366.21(e).

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Judge Margaret Henry

The displacement effects on children are of particular concern. Children are removed from their school districts, their friends, their social and extracurricular activities, and their neighborhoods, as well as from their families. The more familiar things that are removed from children, the greater the degree of trauma.

For parents, nothing is more important to their relationship with their children than visitation, but with distant placements, visits can be extremely difficult to arrange. Even if parents still hold educational rights, the distance may mean that the parents cannot be involved in school programs or educational and health decisions. For example, even for children placed within Los Angeles County, it can take four hours one way for parents in the south end of the county to get to Lancaster in the north end on public transportation, or three hours by car.

Reunification of children with their parents or guardians depends on a number of factors. Parents do have to make progress in programs such as drug rehabilitation or therapy. Beyond that, particularly in later stages of a case, it is the bond and the involvement of the parent with the child that is paramount. Particularly, if there are foster parents competing for the children’s affections, the distance interferes with the parents’ ability to maintain and nourish their relationship with their children.

While the dependency system is made up overwhelmingly of families in poverty, many of the parents are part of the working poor, and many others are seeking work. The time spent getting to a visit interferes with the ability to get or hold a job. Having gainful employment may mean the difference between a parent having a child returned or losing the child forever. And of equal importance is the fact that having meaningful visits may also mean the difference between reunification and having a family permanently torn apart.

Certainly, out-of-county or far-away placements may be justified if children are going to relatives, or even non-relative extended family members. Other than that it seems inexcusable. In Los Angeles County, with transportation problems like traffic jams and inadequate and slow public transportation, it is more difficult on all parties to have children placed far away. Social workers have asked at public meetings for judicial officers to order fewer visits for parents with children, because the social workers were required by the county’s Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) to do some of the driving for the children.

DCFS and other child welfare departments will say that the distant placements are necessary because there are not enough foster homes. The reasons for that would take another series of articles to flesh out. The question has to be asked whether there are too few foster homes or too many children being removed from their families. If the system cannot take proper care of children, and cannot comply with the law to provide reasonable reunification services to families, the system should provide more services to prevent the need for removal.

Government, including all agencies and not just child welfare agencies, can provide more services upfront to families in need in order to prevent the removal of children. Government can use known methods to identify at risk children and families, and help can be offered. That should be the focus, rather than placing children farther and farther away from home because we cannot take care of them in our own county, and within a reasonable distance from the children’s families.

Margaret S. Henry is a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, sitting in Delinquency.  She was Supervising Judge of Dependency at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Courthouse for 10 years, until January of this year.

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