Foster Children Routinely Housed in Office Waiting Room

July 12, 2011

By Garrett Therolf  |  Los Angeles Times  —

Supervising Social Worker Lincoln Saul says Department of Children and Family Services officials have grown defensive about their inability to cope with the problem and take steps to hide it. The agency’s acting deputy director denies Saul’s allegations.

A Los Angeles County social worker has accused his managers of routinely housing children in a Wilshire Boulevard office building without sufficient meals and bedding and then trying to keep the news from their bosses.

The problem stems from a chronic shortage of foster homes throughout the United States as fewer families prove willing or able to care for the most difficult-to-handle children. But Supervising Social Worker Lincoln Saul, who made the accusation in a pair of recent complaint letters, said county officials have grown defensive about their inability to cope with the problem and have used various tactics to hide it.

“In some cases, the treatment that these children receive comes very close to the child abuse from which they are escaping,” he said.

In December, top Department of Children and Family Services officials ordered workers to notify them every time a child had to stay more than eight hours at the agency’s night operations office near MacArthur Park. The reports were then forwarded to the Board of Supervisors, which has been keeping a close eye on the agency since learning that more than 70 children had died of maltreatment in recent years despite having come to the attention of social workers.

But agency employees feared sending that news up the chain of command. Saul alleges the agency started shifting children under government care to field offices shortly before the eight-hour mark. Sometimes they would move them to a McDonald’s to restart the clock, Saul said.

As a result, Saul alleged, the most difficult-to-place children — newly removed infants and older teenagers who had been kicked out of previous foster homes — churned through a unkempt office space night after night, often sleeping in car seats or on the floor without sheets, almost never staying more than eight hours before leaving to spend the day in a field office while social workers tried to find them a foster home.

Jennifer Lopez, acting deputy director of DCFS, flatly rejected Saul’s allegations and said only a tiny handful of children have spent consecutive nights at the Emergency Response Command Post near MacArthur Park. Lopez said Saul was motivated by a dispute over the department’s decision to deny him overtime and his desire “to write a book and travel the talk show circuit.”

County Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe declined to comment, referring The Times to agency officials. Supervisors Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Lopez said the waiting room where children stayed was always clean and that the children were well-attended and were quickly placed in permanent housing.

“We often place 90% of the children in foster homes or group homes within four hours,” she said. “My staff has done a phenomenal job.”

But the San Francisco Youth Law Center, a prominent advocacy group for foster children, filed a complaint Friday with the California Department of Social Services alleging that the county agency is operating an unlicensed foster home in the office building. In 2005, the group filed a similar complaint based on another account by Saul, who works at the command post building.

State regulators substantiated that complaint, and county officials promised to contract with additional emergency shelters licensed to care for foster children whenever they ran short of standard placement options.

But only some of the emergency beds materialized, and the problem has only grown since then, Saul said. When state regulators acted in 2005, an average of 13 children filtered through the waiting room each month. This year in March, 350 children spent at least some time in the office space, and half generally were moved minutes before the eight-hour time limit expired, Saul said.

The rush to get children out before the county’s eight-hour limit meant that some children were unable to eat and bathe themselves.

“With Jennifer Lopez heading the administrative staff at [the command post], most administrators have become obsessed with keeping children out of [the office waiting room] and/or getting the children out … at any cost,” Saul wrote department management and county supervisors last month.

Saul said one example of the rush occurred in May when a 15-year-old girl and her 7-month-old son had only a small snack pack for dinner and were rushed to a field office the next morning without food or a bath.

Children who are sometimes just days old are placed in the room with older children who are seriously ill, some with lice, scabies, ringworm, chickenpox, respiratory problems and other infectious diseases, Saul said.

In May, Los Angeles police were called because a teenager was throwing objects and threatening to slap staff members and a 6-month-old child, Saul said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times