Sacramento's politicians created a fat budget deficit. Then, local bureaucrats misspent state funds meant for foster kids. Now, foster kids might pay dearly.

By D. Heimpel

When wealthy philanthropist Daphna Ziman, wife of real estate magnate Richard S. Ziman, walked into the meeting room of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors the other day, the assembled bureaucrats — there to discuss budget cuts that affect L.A.’s most troubled foster care kids — knew she could rant and rave.

As founder of Children Uniting Nations, Ziman held in her hand a letter from new Assembly Speaker Karen Bass promising that the the state would not cut mentoring programs for foster kids. Ziman also carried with her Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's personal promise to spare foster care.

But now, the Department of Children and Family Services is warning that $25 million must be cut — and the mentoring program is on the table. Ziman’s fury is aimed at saving a mentoring program praised nationally, but also racked by recent controversy, that aims to match tens of thousands of foster kids in Los Angeles County with a mentor by 2010.

“The idea that this money will be put on hold is absolutely unconscionable,” Ziman told the Supes' advisors in a quaking, angry voice. Some aides to the five, powerful, elected board members pursed their lips. How dare she?

But in fact, foster children, among the most vulnerable children in society, yearn for mentors – normal people who will befriend them. Everyone else in a foster child's life – social workers, psychologists, parents – is paid to be there, and the kids are painfully aware of it.

In 1999, Ziman founded Children Uniting Nations to link foster youth with mentors. Ziman, who has adopted two foster kids, used her wealth and connections among the Hollywood and Washington elite, threw fund-raising parties at her Beverly Hills estate, and built a program based on the belief that mentoring is a key weapon against the deprivations of foster care.

With budget cuts facing badly deficit-riddled Sacramento, Ziman lobbied Bass and personally pressured Schwarzenegger, who ultimately pledged $2 million to preserve the mentorship program.

But Ziman now claims an “absolute injustice,” saying that faceless local bureaucrats are sitting on that cash — as if the kids don't have enough problems. In November of last year, an audit revealed that county workers in the mentoring program had been using special “gift cards” meant for needy children on themselves and their pals.

I wrote about the stolen gift cards. See Rotten Re-Gifting and Alleged Thieves Still on County Payroll.

Shortly after Christmas, I visited DCFS’ new, austere, glass-and-steel building. The foster care teenager I was with asked his social worker for a gift card, but she couldn’t provide one because of the “whole gift card scandal.”

Now, in the wake of the scandal, some see the mentoring program as expendable. “The state is proposing to cut programs to the core,” Nick Ippolito, social services deputy for Supervisor Don Knabe, shot at Ziman as she argued with the group of aides. And Miguel Santana, deputy to county chief executive officer William Fujioka, inveighed that the $619,000 for mentoring could “fill in the gaps” elsewhere.

Will foster kids get screwed because the adults in Sacramento created a massive budget deficit and then adults in Los Angeles County misused the kids' special gift cards?

After she made her case, Ziman caught up to Harvey Kawasaki, who works in the badly rattled mentoring section – where two employees were fired over the gift card misuse. “I’m seeing red,” Ziman, the tough-talking philanthropist, said. “If this is not funded, they don’t even want know what will happen.”

In coming days, the supervisors will decide if wiping out the mentoring section is such a prudent idea.

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