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
ON CHRIS’ 17TH BIRTHDAY, he got two T-shirts and a sweater from his friend’s foster mom. His group home gave him a $20 bill. He spent the day shooting hoops and hurling a football on the lush, green grass of Pan Pacific Park. His friend’s foster mom, not the government, arranged the day.
Afterward, he went to work at a burger joint not far from his group home, deep in South L.A. That was his birthday.
Chris says he didn’t receive a gift card that day (or ever) from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the 7,200-employee system that handles this county’s orphans and unwanted. He never questioned it. A kid without a family is used to not getting much.
But officials say a group of Los Angeles County foster-care employees decided to take a share of the crumbs taxpayers provide to foster children as they struggle in an often frightening and lonely life. According to an audit by the Los Angeles County auditor-controller that landed with an embarrassing thud before the Board of Supervisors this month, four employees purchased gift cards to Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa and P.F. Chang’s. They spent $14,000 on tickets to Wicked, at the time the musical-theater rage of L.A. Of 160 tickets purchased — using taxpayer money earmarked for gifts for foster children — only 53 tickets went to kids.
Most were used by county employees and their entourages. But it wasn’t enough for these government workers to have a night on the town and pilfer the kids’ tickets. The audit revealed that the same employees spent $5,700 for 150 tickets to House of Blues’ Sunday gospel brunch — and just 43 of the tickets went to kids. The remaining 107 tickets were divvied up among employees, “mentors” and a DCFS vendor, according to the audit.
The audit suggests $250,000 was spent on entertainment and gift cards meant for children and their mentors.
The four employees are members of the tiny Services Outcome Improvement Project, also known as the Mentorship Section, Los Angeles County DCFS Director Patricia S. Ploehn told the L.A. Weekly.
County officials, from the auditor involved to the county counsel, have refused media requests to identify the four. Moreover, the Mentorship Section did not return calls from the L.A. Weekly, and Ploehn insisted that publicly naming the four would somehow “truly hurt the investigation.” However, the D.A.’s Office lifted the veil somewhat, telling the Weekly that its investigative case is filed under the name Sherrie Hiller, a children’s service administrator.
The Mentorship Section, supposedly dedicated to lifting these children up through partnerships with adult mentors, has just six employees, says DCFS spokesman Stewart Riskin, yet its $1.25 million budget is intended to help those children most at risk: the ones nearing their often-dreaded “emancipation” at 18, when they are, by law, kicked out and often have no home or family to turn to.
Gift cards divert the young adults’ attention from the crap in their lives. “Kids come filthy, hungry and unkempt,” Riskin says. “The gift certificates are sometimes used to take them to McDonald’s, and to get them basic clothes.”
Gift cards are often meant to be shared with mentors, who can take DCFS kids to a show or a brunch — make a young person happy, open their eyes to culture.
“With something like that, you could make a person’s day,” foster kid Chris says over the cell phone he bought with money earned as a cashier. “Stealing those vouchers, that’s something a kid would do — you know what I’m saying? I don’t even know people who do that nowadays.”
BUT LOS ANGELES COUNTY SUPERVISORS and children’s advocates say graft exists. “Stealing vouchers, stealing anything from these children, this is a disease of our community,” says Daphna Ziman, founder of Children Uniting Nations, which places foster kids with mentors.
Last month, her group put on Day of the Child in Woodland Hills. Fifteen hundred foster care children were bused in to meet potential mentors. Ziman and her husband, Richard, bought MP3 players for the kids. She alleges that county bus drivers and county “monitors” got caught stealing the devices. Luckily, a group of soldiers was at the event and took charge, reclaiming the children’s booty, she tells the Weekly.
“Your responsibility as an elected official is to be a parent of these children,” Ziman, who adopted a foster child, says. She charges that the MP3-player-stealing incident reflects the apathy of some members of the powerful five-member Board of Supervisors, which she says has failed to clean up the foster-care program.
The foster-care budget provides a staggering $1.4 billion for the 38,000 kids whose parents are too drunk, too violent, too drugged out, too missing in action. Now, Assistant District Attorney David Demerjian is reviewing four employees for possible criminal charges stemming from the gift-card audit. But with the county struggling even to fire incompetent workers from closed-down Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor Medical Center — workers protected by stiff civil-service rules — it’s not at all clear that the thievery against the foster kids will be seriously punished.