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
By January 6, the baby's rash was spreading, and still nothing had arrived in the mail from Sophie. The next morning, Isabel's little brother, Tito, turned up with the same rash. When Isabel's mother heard about the contagion, she blew up. "I can't come home from the hospital and get an infection. You have to call Sophie and tell her to come and get her kids." Isabel argued, but her mother was adamant. "I've had it," she said. "That girl is just playing you. You've got to look out for your own family."
Isabel was unhappy, but she made the call. "Look, if it was up to me, I'd keep 'em," she told Sophie. "But it's my mother's house. You've got to come and get them today." Sophie said she'd take a bus after work. "Have their stuff ready, and I'll be there tonight," she said.
At 5 p.m. that evening, Isabel splurged and took everybody to Hometown Buffet. "The boys just had a ball," she said afterward. "It's a kid's dream, all-you-can-eat ice cream and sodas. Matty was eating everything." Then she told the two older boys to pack. Isabel packed for the baby, crying as she did so. The kids played in the living room as they waited for their mom. But Sophie didn't come.
IN SOME WAYS, THE ABUSES THAT occur in foster care aren't its most disturbing aspect. It's the fact that, even at its best, foster care predicts failure. In 1986, for example, a UC Berkeley researcher named Richard Barth studied the experiences of former foster youth in the San Francisco Bay area and found that most were struggling with ill health, poor education, severe housing problems, substance abuse and criminal behavior. Barth concluded that the odds of moving easily into independence are stacked against foster children. According to a more recent Berkeley study, kids who have been in foster care for four years or more, and who then mature out at age 18, have a 50 percent likelihood of being homeless after two years.
That last number took me a while to take in, so I'll say it again. Fifty percent of those who graduate from long-term foster care on becoming adults will be homeless two years later. Good God.
Armed with these and other statistics, I went to see Anita Bock, the person who, as of last December, has taken over as director of L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services. Bock is a blond, slender, very smart woman with good taste in suits. She was recruited to come to Los Angeles after she successfully overhauled Miami's smaller but similarly ailing foster-care system. When we met, I liked her because she resisted the temptation to be upbeat and announced right away that she agreed with nearly all of the task force's conclusions. Then she ticked off a list of other problems she feels her agency faces.
"Most of our social workers have 50 or 60 cases, which is quadruple the nationally recommended number of 15. That's clearly unworkable. We also have a bureaucracy that actively prevents people on the frontlines from making decisions that are in the best interests of the child, and tends to meet its own needs first." She smiled wryly. "Which means it's doing whatever it can to avoid liability. We can't afford to operate like that anymore. We have to put the needs of the kids first, the needs of everybody else second."
Bock also described the required training for foster parents as woefully inadequate. "And we should do a complex psychological and social evaluation before we place a child, in order to determine their specific needs and match them with an appropriate family," she said. "Instead, we thrust children into care without any kind of effective assessment. That's just a recipe for problems."
So what to do?
Bock sighed. "We have to gently and humanely unravel the mess that is L.A. County foster care," she said. "And the community needs to step up to the plate as well. There's a good reason that all these kids are flooding into the system. American children are in deep trouble. That's obvious everywhere you look." Still she insisted that she is optimistic. "I think in six months or a year, this agency is going to really surprise everybody -- not just the state but the whole country."
Of course, six months or a year will be too late for Sophie's boys. "Look," Bock said, "I know better than anybody that, while you and I are sitting here talking, children are suffering. That's an enormous emotional burden everybody in this department carries every day."
WE HAD RUN OUT OF OPTIONS. ON Saturday, January 8, Isabel and I decided that Monday morning she would take the boys directly to a social-service office, where I would meet her. "Sophie dealt the cards," I told Isabel.
Although she agreed there was no other alternative, Isabel was miserable. "The thing is, I've gotten used to having them here," she said. "Especially Matty. I've gotten really used to him." She told me how, the night before, her little brother overheard her talking to me and ran and told Peter, "My sister's going to take you to a foster home, and you're going to be crying."
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