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Failing a Generation

Seven-year-old Horace Ray Ferguson, shot and killed in the front yard of his Compton home. Demitri Robledo, 14 months old, dead in Oxnard from a blow to the head. Eight-month-old Angelo Marinda, shaken to death in Daly City.

These cases, widely reported across California in the last several months, are just the latest failures of a $2.2 billion foster-care system that is so broken the government reports documenting its collapse number in the dozens. The most recent entry into this ever-growing canon comes from the state-watchdog Little Hoover Commission. The 13-member panel, which includes nine appointees and four legislators, reviewed records and investigations and held public hearings before releasing its study earlier this month.

What they found: runaways and abductees as young as 2 years old. Substandard education and a 33 percent dropout rate. High rates of public assistance and homelessness among those who “age out” of foster care. Prolonged delays in medical care, and for half the foster children, no mental-health care or dental care. For some, abuse and neglect. For a few, death.

Since 1999, 40 pieces of reform legislation have been signed into law, and millions of dollars have been thrown at the problem. To little effect. According to the report, “The greatest obstacle to meaningful reform is an unwillingness on the part of both state and local leaders to take responsibility for reforming the foster care system.”

The L.A. Weekly’s SARA CATANIA spoke by phone with the commission’s executive director, James P. Mayer, in his Sacramento office.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: In L.A. County, foster-care funding has increased by a third in the past few years. Staffing is up 25 percent. Meanwhile, the number of new children in foster care is down 20 percent. What’s wrong with this picture?

JAMES P. MAYER: Part of what’s wrong with this picture is we spend a whole lot of money on foster care, and we’re not even sure how much we spend or where we spend it. And because we don’t have the management systems in place that track the children in our care, we can’t smartly spend more money or re-allocate existing resources to do a better job.

Over the last three or four years there was a rush, when we had money in Sacramento, to try to spend more on this system. In most of those discussions it wasn’t really clear how that money would be best spent to improve the quality of care that children received or to improve outcomes. Nevertheless it was considered a dramatic problem that caring legislators wanted to do something about. So more money was allocated. The same thing happened at the local level. This is a compelling problem. Policymakers do want things to improve it, and oftentimes the problem gets characterized as inadequate resources.

 

But you don’t believe that’s the problem?

We put more money in the system, and the outcomes didn’t improve.

 

Your report singles out L.A. County, which has six foster-care oversight entities with a combined operating budget of nearly $6 million and yet a massively dysfunctional system. You call for additional oversight in the form of a statewide czar, an inspector general and three citizen oversight panels. How is more bureaucracy the answer?

The reason why we pointed out the existing resources that were being spent on oversight was to suggest that those resources could be better focused. Clearly more bureaucracy is not the answer. The commission’s recommendations are two-fold. The first thing you need to have is clear lines of authority and accountable leadership. And the second thing you need is somebody providing meaningful, adequate oversight of those efforts so that you can hold them publicly accountable. Those are the two missing ingredients.

That’s not to say that we don’t already have lots of bureaucracy or lots of panels that are intending to improve the system. It is to say clearly and sharply that they are not focused on the job that’s in front of them. It’s important to understand that, when we conducted a hearing in Sacramento, the state leadership said it is up to the counties to improve this system. That was one reason why we went to L.A., and we asked the same questions. They said the state had a very clear and central role to be providing leadership for meaningful reform, to set benchmarks for performance.

What we need to do at the state level is focus some responsibility and authority. It does need to be somebody’s job every day to be working on the foster-care system. And they have to have the authority and responsibility to be able to get that job done. We have people who are dedicated to working on the foster-care system, and there are some pretty capable people, frankly. But they don’t have the authority to get the job done. As a result there is nobody minding the store.

 

It seems that you’re placing a great deal of hope in this person, this czar. It’s such a profound responsibility, to take on this seemingly intractable social ill and make it better. Who is the right person for that job?

We haven’t even gone in search of the right person. We can find people within the bureaucracy who we think that should be their job description but they claim it’s not. So we said fine. We’ve got to create this position for somebody who has the authority. You need to recruit somebody who has leadership and management skills who is fit for the job.

 

Aside from the generic leadership and management skills, what does this person need to be successful?

What this position most needs is the political capital and backing from the top leadership of the state. The way you move bureaucracy is with political capital. If the governor wants to fix foster care, foster care will get fixed.

 

Does he?

We haven’t heard from the governor. This hasn’t been a big issue with this administration. And it does need to be a big issue with the governor if it’s going to change.

 

L.A. County has half the state’s foster children and, according to your report, more than half the problems. It’s the largest child-welfare agency in the country. Are there any examples for reform for us to follow?

We’ve been doing pilot projects for years. There are proven good ideas and proven bad ideas. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to do this. It’s that we don’t do it. It’s that pilot projects aren’t replicated. Bad practices aren’t aggressively weeded out. The best and most well-intentioned legislation can’t manage this system. It’s got to be managed in the executive branch and held accountable to clear outcomes.

 

What effect will the current budget crisis have on your reform efforts?

The vast majority of foster-care money is under entitlement programs of one kind or another, so it is not a large threat.

 

How are your reform efforts affected by compassion fatigue?

I’m less worried about compassion fatigue than I am about reform fatigue. I think the people within the system get to a place where they view all criticism as an attack and they just figure out how to endure it. Keep your head low and this too shall pass. As a result we don’t get the progress we want, and so the criticism doesn’t stop.

We’ve got to be careful about what we recommend, not to overload the system with demands for reform. But until the system starts to heal itself, it’s going to have to endure this ongoing criticism from the outside. These are our kids. We are responsible collectively for these children.

The complete Little Hoover Commission report is available.

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