Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Panel, Part 2: Ignoring Fathers, Countenancing Secrecy

April 14, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

In my previous piece on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on the hapless state of child protective efforts in Los Angeles County, I neglected one important shortcoming of a system that has too many to count.

The more than 50% of foster youth who are placed with relatives have greater safety and stability. Yet, due to an inequitable funding system, their caregivers generally receive far less financial support and gain access to fewer services than non-relative caregivers. Financial support currently is determined by the child’s type of placement rather than by his or her needs.

We know that foster care is often disastrous for kids. Study after study shows that they do worse in foster care than even households with moderately abusive biological parents. Even when placements in foster care are temporary, the very process by which children are taken from their parents and sent to live with strangers who may have other foster kids, is traumatic.

As the quoted portion of the report indicates, the better alternative when a child absolutely must be taken out of his/her parents’ care is kinship care, i.e. that provided by grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Aside from being empirically demonstrated, that’s nothing but common sense. Kids usually know their relatives and have established relationships with them. The pain of being taken from their parents is greatly lessened by their going to a familiar place with familiar people. Unsurprisingly, they’re less stressed, do better in school, are less likely to run away, etc.

So what does Los Angeles County do? It provides financial incentives to channel children away from kinship care and into the care of strangers. That’s right; they know that a child’s relatives provide better care and children do better there, so Los Angeles County pays substantially more to foster parents than it does to the child’s biological relatives. That of course makes it hard on the relatives to offer the child a home. Kids cost money and, if the expenses of an additional mouth to feed aren’t adequately reimbursed, a lot of those relatives who’d love to take the child in must say “no.”

This is the type of policy that’s supposed to protect children from harm.

The Commission goes on to make some 35 recommendations for change. Many of those are obvious and necessary and the Commission is to be applauded for its work as far as it goes. But there are certain equally obvious oversights – things the Commission either ignores completely or to which it gives short shrift.

One of those oversights is fathers. Indeed, the word “father” appears nowhere in the report and that’s odd for at least a couple of reasons. First, although the Commission recognized the need for increased placement of children with relatives in kinship care arrangements, there’s no certainty – and no acknowledgement – that fathers are the first choice or even to be considered as placement alternatives.

The fact is that the vast majority of children taken from a parent due to abuse or neglect are taken from mothers. That’s revealed by the data from the federal Administration for Children and Families that show that mothers commit about twice the abuse or neglect of children that fathers do. And of course, mothers are far more likely to have custody of children than are fathers, so, when a child is taken into care, it’s most likely from its mother.

Therefore, the natural next placement should be the child’s father. It’s not only the natural thing to do, it’s the legal thing. California, being part of the Ninth Circuit in the federal system of courts, is subject to the ruling of the court of appeals in Burke vs. Alameda County that held that child protective agencies are required to consider the father for placement of a child who’s been taken from its mother. That of course only makes sense given that the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that there is no valid state interest in taking children from parents absent a finding of parental unfitness.

Given that, we’d expect to find the Commission emphasizing the need to locate and vet fathers as possible placement alternatives before anyone else. But, as I said, the word “father” appears nowhere in the Commission’s report. It’s the law, and it’s best for kids, but a preference for father placement apparently never crossed the minds of the members of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Second, the Urban Institute report from 2006 revealed that, when children are taken from mothers due to abuse or neglect, more than half the time, no attempt is even made to locate and vet fathers. It’s one of the many scandals of the child protective bureaucracy that caseworkers simply ignore fathers. Yes, doing so violates judicial precedent, yes, it would be cheaper for the county and yes, most of the time the kids would be better off, but those charged with protecting children routinely bypass fathers.

In short, the Blue Ribbon Commission, that’s supposed to dramatically improve CPS, that’s supposed to alter the mindset of caseworkers and whole agencies, goes with the same old same old. Once again, fathers are written out of their kids’ lives.

Another aspect of the Report that’s MIA is it’s non-dealing with what surely constitutes 50% of the problem. What makes the news is child injuries and death. When a caseworker overlooks risk to a child who then turns up hurt or dead, it’s grist for the news. After all, such cases are just too sensational to ignore. But the flip side of agency malfeasance is the case in which a child who’s in no danger is taken into care. That’s what happened to little Stevie Rolick. She’s in foster care to this day despite having two loving and capable parents. That’s because her father, Scott Rolick, thought he had parental rights and went about videotaping Ventura County CPS caseworkers.

But, CPS being a law unto itself, didn’t take kindly to Scott’s behavior, so, typically, they took it out on Stevie.

The Report is littered with the truth about caseworkers buried under unworkable caseloads and a shocking lack of foster homes. But it ignores cases in which kids are taken from their parents for no good reason. Those kids of course add to caseworkers’ caseloads and use up the scarce resource of beds in foster care, in both ways making bad situations worse. But nowhere does the report connect the two dots. One recommendation should be that caseworkers should be taught to take into care only children who are truly at risk. But the Report is mum on the subject.

Finally, the Report makes little-to-nothing of the fact that child protective agencies act almost entirely behind a veil of secrecy. Nominally of course, that’s for the protection of the child. The theory seems to be that publicity surrounding a case of child abuse or neglect might be too traumatic for children, already possibly abused, to bear.

I doubt it. For one thing, many of these kids are too young to read or to understand much of what’s going on in their lives, much less in the news. What’s traumatic for them is the abuse they suffer and the endless hopping from one foster family to another. My guess is that, even for children who are old enough to know what’s going on, the least of their worries is whatever news reports might reveal about their situations. The simple fact is that there are so many of these kids (in L.A. County alone, some 40 new cases a day) only the tiniest fraction of them will ever see or hear their names in the news.

All of which is to say what I’ve said before – that the requirement of secrecy exists much more for the benefit of CPS than it does for kids. With secrecy, caseworkers and supervisors almost never have to answer the questions of pesky reporters demanding to know why such and such a child died on their watch. Compared to reporters, officeholders and the like, answering to a supervisor, who knows the ropes of the system, is a piece of cake.

Like the Houston caseworker I referred to in my previous piece, they know what their supervisors expect and do it. If it happens to make no sense in terms of protecting a child from risk, so be it. The caseworker keeps her job, the supervisor’s happy and no one’s the wiser thanks to the secrecy of the whole charade. Are a child’s true best interests being seen to? Ah, that’s another matter.

That CPS operates almost exclusively behind a curtain of secrecy away from public view, explains why their behavior looks so shocking when, on those rare occasions, the curtain is pulled aside. We know about Stevie Rolick in Ventura County, we know about Omaree Varela in New Mexico and are outraged by what CPS caseworkers did and didn’t do. But those are just the ones that made the news for one reason or another. They’re the tip of the iceberg and the mandate of secrecy is a big reason why.

If they weren’t just the tip of the iceberg, why would the Blue Ribbon Commission call the state of child protection in Los Angeles County an “emergency” and for a “complete rethinking” of the system of child protection? If the few cases that make the news aren’t just the tip of the iceberg, why was the Commission unable to locate a single person to defend the existing system?

From this Report, it looks like the Commission is serious about radically altering child protection system in Los Angeles County. But it also looks like a Commission that’s made up of people who are too close to the forest to see the trees. Any comprehensive report that makes no mention of fathers, that ignores secrecy and its ill consequences and that fails to notice overreaching by child protective caseworkers has already failed, whatever may have been the intentions of the members who wrote it.

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child abuse, child neglect, Child Protective Services, Los Angeles County, Blue Ribbon Commission

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