By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
SOPHIE'S SONS ARE PRECIOUS TO ME BECAUSE I know them. I know that if you ask Peter what birthday or Christmas gift he wants, his too-responsible reaction is often to mention the needs of his little brothers first. I know that James is an overcautious middle child who has learned not to make any waves, and that Matty is Sophie's miracle baby, the one whose birth had given her the courage to rise (at least temporarily) above a depression that had threatened to engulf her. Yet, apart from the personal, the most distressing part of the boys' uncertain situation wasn't its uniqueness, but its dreadful ordinariness.
We live in an era of contradictions. Despite the yo-yoing of the stock market, the state's economy is booming, and Silicon Valley still manufactures millionaires at an impressive clip. Yet, at the bottom layers of the economic hierarchy, the poor are getting poorer, and parental neglect -- even more than abuse -- is a relentlessly rising tide.
As of late last year, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had 65,996 children under its supervision, making it the biggest dependency system in the nation. Three-quarters of those children have been pulled from their parents' care because of neglect. According to a 1998 study conducted by the California League of Women Voters, neglected kids are the fastest-growing segment of the foster-care population and are the ones likely to stay in the system the longest. The League also noted that young children who are neglected score 10 to 20 IQ points below those who are not.
Of course, for every one of these kids we know about, there are undoubtedly many more who -- like Peter and his brothers -- are teetering on the edge of disaster outside the range of our collective vision. In part, this is due to the fact that neglect, unlike abuse, is tricky to identify. A social worker can document if a child is being hit or deprived of adequate food, clothing or shelter. But the more subtle benchmarks that constitute general neglect are not easily determined in a brief visit or telephone call. That's, of course, presuming a social worker is alerted to the situation at all.
Right now, one-third of L.A. County's 2,537,449 children live below the poverty line. Statewide, one-fifth are being raised in single-parent households. On a national level, 1,900,000 California children have one or more parents in prison; 180,000 of these children have incarcerated mothers, numbers that are expected to increase by at least 7.8 percent a year. As of January 1, 1998, anyone convicted of a drug-related felony in California may never again receive any kind of public assistance. This means that a mom who gets out of prison with the intention of leaving drugs behind and building a new life bloody well better be able to do it on her own.
Obviously, poverty doesn't necessitate bad parenting. The majority of poor single mothers manage to do right by their children in the face of staggering obstacles. But for those who are too broke, too stressed, too strung-out to be adequate parents, we have little patience and few forms of support.
SINCE THERE WERE SEVERAL LARGE HURDLES TO clear before Isabel could keep Sophie's boys, it seemed practical to at least consider a worst-case scenario. Let's say there was no other choice but to put Peter, James and Matthew under the care of the county -- what exactly would that entail? With a few quick calls to DCFS officials, I learned that the sequence of events would likely unfold as follows: One of us -- Isabel or me or Father Greg -- would make a call to the Child Abuse Hotline. We would explain that the children's mother had disappeared, that the boys hadn't been in school for several weeks, and that their needs were generally not being met.
The DCFS would then spring into action. Based on our hot-line call, a report would be generated that would, in turn, be referred to an Emergency Response worker. There it would be reviewed, prioritized, and assigned to an individual social worker, who would be required to make a personal visit to the household. In most instances, the worker has a five-day window in which to make the home visit. In more severe cases -- if the child, say, is in immediate danger of physical or sexual abuse -- the window is narrowed down to a two-hour response time. In the case of Sophie's boys, a meeting would likely be arranged within 24 hours.
After the worker's visit, if he or she decides it's necessary to remove the kids, a foster placement is located as quickly as possible, often that same day. In the case of Sophie's boys, the worker would look for a family willing to take all three. "We always try to keep siblings together," an official told me, "but it's getting harder and harder at the rate kids flood into this system." DCFS figures put the likelihood of siblings being separated at around 40 percent. Ã£
Whether they were placed individually or jointly, once the boys were in the home of their new caretakers, they would try to settle into some semblance of a normal life. However, it's at this point where the efficacy of the system would start to collapse. According to DCFS estimates, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the children placed in (nonrelative) foster homes have two or more placements. In plain language, this means that, within a few months, something would go wrong at the boys' first foster home. As a consequence, they would be uprooted again and placed with a second family. After that, maybe a third, or even a fourth. The longer kids are in foster care, the more likely they are to have more than two placements.