A Safety Net for California Foster Children

The 110-page report by the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, titled “Shame on the U.S.,” outlines the negligence of our government to protect children and enforce federal child welfare laws at the state level.

“Our culture and much of our media — just like all three branches of our federal government have failed these children. By allowing that to happen, each of us has failed them as well. They deserve so much more. Until these children are no longer neglected by all of us responsible for their safety and their fate, Shame on U.S.”

What a poignant title the Children’s Advocacy Institute chose. Shame on U.S. (as in the United States and US, collectively, who are the safety net for foster children). Shame on us for allowing the foster care system to fail some of the most fragile members of our society – children in the custody of state and county agencies.

“A conservative estimate of the number of those children who were killed that year [2012] by abuse or neglect is 1,640 — meaning that abuse or neglect leads to the death of at least 4–5 children every day in the U.S. Sadly, the real numbers of both child abuse/neglect victims and fatalities are much higher, due in part to unreported abuse.”

“In spite of the numerous limitations involved in resorting to the judicial branch for relief when states violate federal child welfare laws, HHS’ failure to adequately monitor and/or enforce those laws has compelled private parties to file numerous lawsuits over the past few decades — litigation seeking to compel state compliance with federal child welfare laws.”

“Over 100 such lawsuits have been filed by advocates over the last few decades against states and counties for failure to comply with these particular elements of federal law affecting children in foster care. Many of the private lawsuits address similar state deficiencies, such as the failure to ensure that social workers have manageable caseloads and receive adequate training and supervision; timely investigate and address reported abuse and neglect incidents (both within natural families and within foster care placements); properly license and train foster parents; place children in adequate and safe foster family and group homes; ensure adequate parent-child or sibling visitation; provide children and families with adequate case planning and review; and provide needed medical, dental and mental health services to foster children.”

The statistics cited in the article are depressing. We have the opportunity to make the system better. Rather than let these statistics paralyze us, let us use the statistics as motivation to change the system. Advokids works every day to protect children in foster care and those at risk of entering foster care – our legal services provide the safety net for children when our governmental agencies fail them. One way we do this is by holding counties accountable when they fail to comply with the state laws in place to protect these children from being further victimized by the broken system.

Advokids, along with three foster parents, recently filed suit against the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (LADCFS) for routinely failing to provide foster parents and relative caregivers with advance written notice of court hearings and opportunities to be heard. In the Juvenile Dependency system, critical decisions about a child’s future are determined during these court hearings that typically occur every six months and are over in a matter of minutes. Oftentimes, the people speaking on behalf of the child are an attorney who has met the child a handful of times (at best) and a social worker with an unmanageable case load.

“DCFS has responsibility for more than 35,000 children in Los Angeles County each year. Guidelines from the Child Welfare League of America and the SB 2030 Child Welfare Services Workload Study have recommended between 12 and 15 caseloads for social workers. However, DCFS Director Phillip L. Browning has pegged the current average caseload for a Los Angeles County social worker at 32.”

Minor’s counsel and county social workers both have the child’s best interest at heart yet they consistently marginalize the individual who knows this particular child best — the caregiver who tends to that child’s every physical and emotional need every day of the year. Advokids is in a unique position to collect statewide data through our free legal informational hotline for anyone concerned about a child in foster care in California. Being the only organization in the state offering this much needed service, we are able to collect significant data about the alarming trends impacting foster children, particularly in Los Angeles County. Oftentimes, these trends involve a placement disruption of a child who has been in a stable and potentially adoptive home for a significant period of time to be moved to a relative or Non Relative Extended Family Member (NREFM) who may or may not have a relationship with the child and has only recently come forward seeking placement. Of the hotline cases we’ve opened in 2015, 38% of callers are caregivers concerned about a foster child in Los Angeles County. By empowering caregivers with legal information and tools, they then have the skills to advocate on behalf of the child in their care in the courtroom. A judge is able to make a more informed and critical decision about a child’s future when they have all the information about that particular child’s unique needs and best interest. The more caregivers we equip with the ability to bring critical information about the child in their care to the judge, the wider their safety net becomes.

Follow this link for more information about our lawsuit and check out Advokids Deputy Director Jan Sherwood’s op-ed for The Chronicle of Social Change on “Why We Should Welcome Caregiver Participation In the Child Welfare System.”

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