The number of children and families in crisis in Los Angeles County is staggering. Apart from practical implications and costs, the fallout at the personal level for these children and families, and the people in government and nonprofit agencies who work to help them, is incalculable.
The fallout is a juggernaut, almost like a contagious virus, with psychological, financial, and societal symptoms.
It presents in such forms as neighbors of a group home railing against foster children who acted out by committing petty crimes. Or a School Board member, frustrated by the cost burden of educating the foster children, pointing out how much they take away from educating other students.
There are currently 18,000 parentless children, a majority under the age of 10 with infants being the highest rate of entry, and an overall total of 35,000 open cases (which includes families) in Los Angeles County.
In fact, as Supervisor Kathryn Barger acknowledged in an email to Pasadena Now, “Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the nation and as such we have the largest child welfare system.”
“That’s a lot of children to give up on and lock up,” said Chanel Boutakidis, Chief Executive Officer of Five Acres in Altadena, responding to remarks on social media.
And while the number in need grows, the number of agencies helping these children is declining.
As of today, 98 contracts have ended over the past two years leaving a handful in the County able to do the work, said Boutakidis.
The help the children need isn’t cookie-cutter, either.
“Every one of our kids that we work with presents a very unique set of circumstances. So it’s hard to build a system that’s based on one set of circumstances when you actually need to be able to build a system based on [the] very unique conditions of every child that we serve” says Kym Renner, deputy director with Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services
Many of the children in the foster care system are traumatized to some degree, says Anabel Rodriguez, deputy director of the child welfare division of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
“Many of the kids that come to our attention that are coming in from foster care have a history of abuse and neglect,” said Rodriguez. “And so what we try to do is to safely address just some of the trauma of what they had endured. In addition, to those kids who need to be removed from their biological family, we need to be able to address those losses as well. And then we need to ensure that as children come into the foster care system, we also are able to address kind of their current needs while they’re in foster care.”
Already confronted with complex challenges, the child welfare system now also faces the effects of state reform.
“The vision of the state reform is to have short term intensive treatment for foster children and to move them into forever families as soon as possible, thereby removing them from the foster care system,” explained Boutakidis. “It’s a great vision, but not one that will come quickly and easily.”
Continuum of care reform calls for decreased reliance on group homes and instead transitions to foster homes where they’re actually placed with a family. Those foster homes now are no longer known as foster homes, but rather as resource homes. Foster parents are now seen as temporary resources to help the children transition back home with their parents or with a relative.
“We have lost a significant number of peer agencies who are not willing or able to provide this service with these new regulations,” observes Boutakidis. “Out of the hundreds of prior providers of care to foster children, 23 of us remain and have decided to try to make this work for the children in need in L.A. County.”
The Pasadena area is home base to several important agencies that have over a century of commitment to the community and to serve children in need.
As the County faces these developments, Pasadena Now is partnering with Five Acres in a multi-part series to shine light on the complex issues of evolving foster care right now.
“These are children that deserve an opportunity. I agree that cycles can repeat if not broken. In my 20 years at Five Acres,” said Boutakidis, “I have seen children come in angry and lost but when they get the services to help with their trauma, they are given the opportunity to thrive. If children can survive abuse and a chaotic system, they are resilient. Imagine their potential if they have the right supports of a loving and safe family and community.”
In our next installment, Pasadena Now and Five Acres will focus on specifics of the significant reforms to the foster care system underway. For more about Five Acres, click here.