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.

THE DEBACLE CAME TO LIGHT after Ploehn, who had spent 28 years “on the line” as a foster care worker, started asking her staff what she could do to help them. Some complained about how supplies were budgeted, so Ploehn asked J. Tyler McCauley, the county auditor-controller, to audit the procurement of supplies. That audit led to the dirty secret that four employees were enjoying themselves with gift cards meant for the children.

“I’ve begun disciplinary procedures,” she says. “I do not want employees here not doing the best thing for children and their families.” Unlike employees in private life, who would be summarily fired, these county government workers “have civil-service protections. We have to show evidence why they should or should not be disciplined.”

Ploehn can discipline them using a range of five options, from a letter of warning to termination — yet only two members of the Board of Supervisors, Gloria Molina and Michael Antonovich, are expressly demanding their firings.

The elected board has a recent history of passing the buck when civil-service protections make it hard to fire workers: This year, the board members expressed shock that scores — some say hundreds — of incompetent Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor Medical Center nurses and doctors remained on payroll long after officials promised to remove them.

And now, they are not exactly demanding the firings of the Gift Card Four.

“The discipline they should receive depends on each individual case,” wanly insists Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who represents a large area of L.A. County jammed with an unusual number of group foster homes. “These kind of things happen. But when we give out turkeys, we have to be careful those turkeys aren’t given away to friends.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky “will closely watch what the department does,” aide Joel Bellman says. “If there are prosecutorial criminal offenses, that process should take its course as well.” David Sommers, the press secretary for Supervisor Don Knabe, says Knabe “supports the idea that there needs to be firings.”

Supervisor Michael Antonovich goes further, flatly stating: “I totally support firings and criminal proceedings against those who committed this offense.” Antonovich’s communication deputy, Tony Bell, says the case is about “bad apples that have been weeded out — and that’s good.”

Only Supervisor Gloria Molina seemed truly outraged: “To have employees take advantage of these poor children is appalling,” she says. “These employees should be terminated immediately and should pay restitution!”

While commending Ploehn’s request of the audit, Molina says the incident is a test of the director’s resolve. Ploehn “has to show her employees that she is in command. She needs to terminate the people who did this — immediately.”

Ploehn will not divulge what punishment she has meted out. But McCauley, the auditor who found the graft, took the matter to the district attorney.

“I was appalled by the bad judgment,” he says. “It is a very small group of people, but they will be disciplined for what they did.” Assistant D.A. Demerjian, who heads the Public Integrity Division, says the case is under review.

Foster kid Chris, after talking to the Weekly, asks a few of the other boys at his South L.A. group home if they have ever received gift vouchers. They say no. “Damn,” he says. “It’s a government agency and there’s corruptcy [his invented word] going on. That’s fucked up. Damn. In a business that’s made for kids.”

But he’s stoic. He has to be. With all the corruptcy, he knows he’s got to go it alone.

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