By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Maybe that was what happened, Isabel and I theorized. Something occurred at the club that triggered a colossal breakdown. "If she's messing up, I can understand it, that's on her," said Isabel. "But it isn't fair to the boys. They deserve better."
This past summer, I sat next to Peter at Rosemary's wedding. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, I was startled when he turned to me and blurted without preface, "I wish I had a safe place to live." I asked what he meant. "You know, a house where we didn't have to move around all the time, a place so I could just go to school and come home and keep my stuff there, and never worry that it would be taken away from us." Peter stated this without complaint in his voice, as if he were talking about some minor desire, like a TV show he wanted to watch. But at the back of his eyes, the longing shimmered. And now his mother was pulling this insane disappearing act.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT IF A CHILD IS TO THRIVE? Love, certainly. After that some encouragement, the feeling of belonging, a sense of emotional and physical safety. Peter had love of a kind, although much of the time it had been questionably demonstrated. Encouragement? Well, maybe. What he clearly did not have, what he'd said he wanted, was safety and a place to belong. If these needs aren't met soon, chances are he'll take them into his own hands -- which in L.A.'s poorer neighborhoods usually translates as gang membership, armed and on the street.
Certainly it's the intention of the Department of Children and Family Services that the children in its care should be provided with at least most of the items on the short list of fundamental requirements. But that goal is met only sporadically.
In Los Angeles County there are currently 8,598 foster-care providers in two different categories: those licensed by the state and those run by private foster-family agencies known as FFAs. While there is no average profile of a foster parent, DCFS's Gilden suggests that there are a couple of common types. First, she said, there are the people who adore children and become foster parents purely out of kindness and compassion. "But the majority do it as a way of staying home while also earning a living," said Gilden. In other words, they do it for the money.
The monthly per-kid fee paid to foster parents ranges from around $400 at the lowest end, up to $1,400 for a child with severe medical problems requiring intensive attention. Most fees fall into the $550-to-$700 range. Since the state allows up to six children in a household, at $650 apiece, that would be $46,800 a year, tax-free.
"Of course, the fact that they're treating it as a business doesn't mean they aren't excellent foster parents who are interested in children," Gilden said. "On the other hand, I think the reason some people go bad is that they think foster parenting is going to be easy. Then they find it's quite different when it's not their own kid. So they end up losing it in one way or another." The dynamic is further complicated, says Gilden, by the fact that every child coming into the system is, by definition, a high-needs kid coping with an array of painful emotional issues.
All right, if foster care is a business, then surely quality control is of paramount importance. Gilden admits, however, that monitoring the care children receive is another area where the system needs significant improvement. Each kid has a social worker who is supposed to check in -- at least cursorily -- each month. But in state-licensed foster homes, the only oversight of the actual home consists of a single annual inspection to determine whether it still meets basic certification standards. Foster children are not interviewed during the visit, nor are they even required to be present. Beyond this solitary yearly visit, the single thing protecting the child's emotional and physical safety is the vigilance of the general public. In other words, if a neighbor or a teacher thinks a foster parent is beating on a kid, they can call the Child Abuse Hotline. Then, as with any other family, a social worker will investigate the complaint. Otherwise, kids in state homes are pretty much on their own. The Child Abuse Hotline receives nearly 150,000 calls a year. Of those, approximately 2,400 calls are related to kids already within the county's care, nearly 500 of which eventually prove to be documentable cases of abuse or neglect.
The monitoring of FFA homes seems to be better -- on the surface anyway. Under the FFA system, social workers visit the house once a month and are instructed to interview the children with an eye to potential abuse. There is a vast gray area, however, between the supportive, nurturing foster parent and the one who does outright physical harm. It's this middle ground that Isabel described when she talked of her brothers' foster-care experience. No one hit them or assaulted them sexually. But no one appeared to care about them, either.
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