Thomas leans over his computer putting the final touches on 40 hours of paperwork that encapsulates weeks of thoughtful dialog with his partner, Brett.*
Finally, they have completed their applications to become foster parents. Thomas and Brett have all the qualities of ideal foster parents – they are nurturing, empathetic, mature, well-educated, financially stable and supported by their families, friends and employers. But their story doesn’t have a happy ending. That fact points to a problem not just for Thomas and Brett, but also for Los Angeles County’s child welfare system.
After the couple completed the intensive foster parent certification process, three siblings, ages 3, 6 and 11, were placed in Thomas and Brett’s care. Just three days later, it became clear that the children’s behavioral and mental health problems were more significant than Thomas and Brett were prepared to handle on their own. Lacking needed support, Thomas and Brett ultimately requested that the siblings be moved to new placements.
The lack of support for foster parents is a problem that is poised to become more acute with the implementation of AB 403, California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), in January 2017. CCR may lead to the closure or restricted use of many group homes in an effort to move those children to a family setting. As a result, Los Angeles County will need to recruit and retain more foster parents.
Many of the children in these group homes have been traditionally hard to place due to behavioral problems or other special needs. For the placements to be successful, the foster parents accepting these children will need to be better trained and supported. The agencies charged with finding placements must also improve their ability to match children with appropriate families, as well as ensure mental health services are available for the children.
Thomas and Brett’s story illustrates a system that is not working for children or families. Policy changes resulting from CCR and complementary programs have the potential to improve the system, but they may not be enough.
Thomas and Brett had wanted children for years. After 14 years together and much thought, they decided to become certified to become foster parents. They went into the process with the goal of serving a community need in addition to fulfilling their own desire for children. With Thomas’ background in social work and Brett’s background as an attorney, they felt well-suited to become foster parents – a role they knew was often challenging.
After doing research to supplement their already strong understanding of the child welfare system, they decided to become certified through a foster family agency (FFA), a nonprofit organization licensed by the state to certify foster and adoptive parents. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, FFAs were created to “recruit, certify, train, and support foster parents for hard-to-place children who would otherwise require group home care.”
After Thomas and Brett provided the FFA with their application – a four-inch-tall stack of paper – and completed hours of in-home interviews and inspections, the FFA submitted a report to L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) on the couple’s qualifications to become foster parents. This report would provide DCFS with everything the agency needed to certify Thomas and Brett and help identify children who would be a good match for their home.
After three months of waiting for the FFA to prepare their report, Thomas and Brett expected it to be thorough and correct. However, the report did not capture much of the information that Thomas and Brett provided to the FFA and, at times, even mixed up their characteristics. For example, a description of Thomas’ personality was attributed to Brett.
“It was thrown together,” Brett said. “It would have been nice for it at least to have been accurate.”
The process that Thomas and Brett undertook to become certified will soon be overhauled. On January 1, 2017, Los Angeles will adopt the Resource Family Approval Program (RFA). RFA aims to make the licensing process more rigorous and more efficient by combining the certification requirements for fostering and adoption.
Potential foster parents are expected to undergo increasingly rigorous certification standards. In theory, this is a positive step to ensure children’s wellbeing. However, it increases the burden on potential foster parents, and the question remains: Are agencies putting all the information they collect to good use?
Despite the shortcomings of the FFA’s report, Thomas and Brett were granted foster parent certification. Soon after they were certified, they received a call from their FFA asking if they would agree to have three girls placed with them. The social worker described the girls as Hispanic siblings ages 3, 6, and 11 who were “compliant.” The worker believed that they had been homeless, living in Venice Beach.
Thomas and Brett were given 15 minutes to decide if they should accept these girls into their home.
“You have to decide if you’re in or you’re out based on a tiny little bit of information,” Brett said.
Though they had specified in their application that they would take a maximum of two children, the social worker pushed them to take all three girls, the couple said. Wanting to help and under the impression that this would be a short-term placement, they conceded.
That afternoon, the social worker dropped three African American girls off at Thomas and Brett’s home. Not only were Thomas and Brett surprised by the mismatch between the children described on the phone and the children who arrived on their doorstep, but the children were also surprised to be greeted by Thomas and Brett. They were told they would be going to a heterosexual couple’s home.
By day two, Thomas and Brett began to see another error in the description of the girls: They were not in fact “compliant.” The 11-year-old began geographically locating herself using the smart phone Thomas and Brett had given her, and sending messages to her mother to pick them up. The mother was involved in a gang, and other members of the family had criminal histories. At the same time, the 6-year-old began physically abusing her siblings.
By day three, Thomas and Brett knew that they were ill-equipped to parent all three girls and voiced the need to find a different placement for at least two of them to their social worker.
“We were in over our heads with three very challenging girls,” Thomas said.
Reflecting back on the situation, Thomas and Brett wish they had more information about the girls prior to agreeing to the placement.
“We were not able to know what we were expecting in our home,” Thomas said. “That could have put us at risk, but more likely could have put the girls at risk.”
Thomas and Brett believe the social worker did in fact have more information on the girls, but chose not to share it with them. Additionally, the FFA and DCFS might have better used the plethora of information that Thomas and Brett had provided to determine that this was not likely to be a good match. The RFA program presents an opportunity to more effectively use data and stronger social worker-parent relationships to improve the matching process.
After three months of tumult, the girls were eventually moved to new placements. Thomas and Brett do not know if the new parents are a better match for the girls.
A handful of studies have shown the deleterious effects of placement instability on foster children. A literature review by UC Davis summarizing the studies states: “Children who are removed from their homes and then who experience placement disruption can lead to them experiencing profound distress and a sense of loss and not belonging, all of which can lead to distrust and a fear of forming secure healthy relationships.”
Unfortunately, placement instability is not uncommon in Los Angeles. Of the 10,798 children in L.A. County who have been in foster care for fewer than 12 months, 1,215 children will have already been moved to three or more placements, according to data from the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.
Some of these placement changes could be avoided if foster parents were given better training and support.
“You’re thrown into the fire and expected to take care of things,” Brett said.
Though the FFA provided some training as part of the certification process, it did not begin to prepare Thomas and Brett for the situation into which they were pushed.
Two rigorous studies have proven the positive impact of intensive parent training on placement stability.
“It appears that without adequate preparation, training, and support for foster parents, children will experience disruptions in their placements,” the UC Davis study reports.
At the state level, there is a clear recognition of the need for greater foster parent support. California’s Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), which was launched in 2009 and has now been adopted in 22 counties, strengthens parenting by developing a partnership plan among the case worker, the foster parent and the birth parent. It also offers online “just in time” training for parents seeking guidance on a particular child rearing or behavioral topic. QPI will soon be adopted in Los Angeles County, and offers a significant opportunity to reframe practices with foster parents in mind.
Also imminent are the sweeping changes and funding attached to Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), which outlines a vision for the foster care system centered on the child, and in which the foster families play a central role. As part of the CCR bill’s implementation, the state is now considering a new system wherein parents would be given a higher payment to foster children with greater needs.
In support of CCR efforts, Governor Brown allocated $17.8 million in 2015 and $17.2 million in 2016 in Foster Parent Recruitment, Retention and Support (FPRRS) funding to county child welfare agencies. County agencies can use this money to support their efforts in any of five areas: caregivers, high-needs children, child care, family recruitment or innovation.
Though these are positive steps to better support families, they likely would not have been enough to change the outcomes for Thomas, Brett and the three girls in their care.
The girls, like so many other foster children, had clearly been subjected to significant trauma. Brett was shocked to find that the girls’ version of playing “house” involved screaming and pointing guns at one another. The girls were illustrating their definition of a home by mimicking scenes that they had witnessed in their birth home, Brett suspects.
In the three months the girls were in their care, Thomas and Brett spent countless hours on the phone trying to connect them to mental health services to help address some of the effects of their traumatic upbringing.
They first contacted the county’s Multi-disciplinary Assessment Team (MAT). This collaboration among the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, DCFS, and community metal health providers is “designed to ensure the immediate and comprehensive assessment of children and youth entering out-of-[birth] home placement,” according to the DCFS website. While this collaboration has the makings of a model program, Thomas and Brett had a difficult time getting a MAT assessor out to see the girls.
By the time they secured mental health services, the girls were already preparing to move to their new placements.
As demonstrated by Thomas and Brett’s experience, faster access to mental health services is critical to ensuring placement stability and positive outcomes for families. Los Angeles County has made positive strides since the implementation of MAT in 2008, but there is considerable room for improvement.
A California state senate bill, SB 1466, introduced in February by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), could hold promise for addressing mental health concerns of children entering the child welfare system statewide. The legislation recognizes that children who have been removed from their homes have been subjected to trauma, and attempts to prioritize mental health services for them.
According to Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, in a recent newsletter, “There is not a single fix for improving our caregiver system. The change will come from committed implementation of a complex mix of programs and policies.” Mecca references the Quality Parenting Initiative and the Resource Family Approval Program, two important movements that will help reframe how county agencies think about and support foster parents. He also mentions the passing of Continuum of Care Reform and state funding increases for caregiver retention and support that have followed. Finally, Mecca discusses the importance of mental health services and the need for a “paradigm shift to trauma-focused care.”
The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to align, but it remains to be seen whether California and Los Angeles County will take the bold steps needed to ensure that foster parents, like Thomas and Brett, are no longer marginalized. Ultimately, foster children’s wellbeing depends on it.
*Last names have been withheld in the interest of the family’s privacy.
Lauren Johnson is a candidate for a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the school’s Media for Policy Change course.