Shortage of foster parents straining Los Angeles County's child welfare system

The living room area at the Children's Welcome Center operated by L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Small children wait here to be placed in foster homes.
The living room area at the Children's Welcome Center operated by L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Small children wait here to be placed in foster homes. Courtesy L.A. County DCFS

L.A. County is in an unusual predicament. Traditionally, the county's foster care system has struggled with a shortage of homes for children who are older and with medical and mental health needs. But just this past year, system workers have noticed a shift: suddenly, there's a shortage of beds for the system's babies and toddlers.

Sari Grant, head of recruitment for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), says county workers have seen more and more kids spending hours and sometimes days in the welcome center, a daycare converted into an after hours reception center for small children entering the foster care system.

"When children are detained, they’re calling every home possible, and going to 20, 30, 40 homes and still there’s no home available," Grant says. "Then you know you don’t have enough homes for the children who need them.”

Different people give widely different explanations for the lack of beds. But Mandy Updegraff's story is a window into the complexity of fostering young children.

Updegraff lives by herself in an off-street cottage in Highland Park. On the front porch, there's a baby stroller and on the coffee table, a book about dealing with grief.

"My goal going into it was not just to be a foster parent, but to adopt," Updegraff says. "But I knew going into it that it doesn’t always end in adoption”

In January last year, Updegraff decided she was ready to start a family and attended a foster parent recruiting session. After taking classes and getting certified, she got the call for a 10-month-old girl in August 2012.

"They called at 5:30 and she was in my car at 7," Updegraff says.

She fell in love and they instantly bonded.

"I saw her learn to walk," Updegraff says. "And talking, she’s getting a lot of words. She started saying, ‘mom,’ ‘mama.’"

Meanwhile, the girl's birth mother started taking parenting classes and participating in visitations several times a week – a plan designed to get her baby back. After 10 months in Updegraff's care, the child was reunited with her birth mother.

“It’s hard for people to really understand what it’s like," Updegraff says. "The child didn’t die, they’re still alive, but they’re not with you."

That affliction is the product of a success. The goal of the foster care system is to return kids to their birth parents. And the vast majority of children do return home. Last year, there were about 35,000 kids in the child welfare system (which includes foster care and other forms of intervention). About 1,500 were adopted.

Leslie Heimov is the executive director of the Children's Law Center, which provides attorneys to every foster child in L.A. County. She says sometimes foster parents like Updegraff become frustrated with the system.

"They’ve lost this baby that they’ve fallen in love with, and then they may say, ‘I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard,'" she says. "Then they turn to adoption agencies or international adoption."

Despite the infrequency of adoption, a few years ago, Los Angeles County began requiring that new foster parents be certified as adoptive parents as well. 

"They changed the policy to prevent children from having to be moved if reunification was not successful," says Heimov. Moves are disruptive for kids, and the idea was to be able to plan "concurrently" for the child's long term future.

Heimov fears the policy change may also have turned off potential foster parents. 

"Not all foster parents want to be adoptive parents," Heimov says.

Along with the foster parent prototype of the young person or couple looking to start a family, there's the other common model: The older person or couple, whose children have left home, and who want to continue parenting. They're generally less interested in adoption and might drop out of the certification process when confronted with the extra scrutiny adoption certification requires.

“It’s often not related to safety," says Heimov. "It’s things like having to provide the documentation from a divorce that was maybe 30 years ago, and you can’t find it."

However, Sari Grant, of DCFS, says the policy change is a red herring – that few, if any potential foster parents have been turned off by the extra paperwork. Much more pressing, she says, is the resources available to foster parents.

"Diapers are expensive," she says. "I would like to see child care as an option." (DCFS apparently has some money available for foster parents who need to use daycare, but not nearly enough to satisfy the need. In Updegraff's case, she received $800-a-month total to care for her foster child – daycare alone cost $1,000 a month.)

Grant says the foster parents she's seen stick around the longest are the ones whose social workers are the most supportive.

"They pick up the phone, they find resources when the family needs help," Grant says.

Regardless of what's causing the disparity between the numbers and characteristics of foster children and appropriate placements, Heimov says it's straining the foster system. Lack of flexibility in placements for children means less thoughtful placements. She's seeing more children placed far away from their birth families, which interferes with reunification efforts. She's also seeing siblings split up more often.

"It can be really hard on the kids," Heimov says. "Often the older sibling will have a parental role with the younger. When we see them, all they want to talk about is: 'How’s my baby sister, when am I going to see her again. I’m so worried about her, I can’t concentrate at school. When I talk to her on the phone, she doesn’t say anything or I hear her crying.'”

Possible solutions include focusing more on finding extended family members to foster children. 

DCFS is also working on revamping their case management system and hiring more social workers – moves designed to more effectively evaluate children's intervention and placement needs and options.

Regardless, however, DCFS feels it simply needs more people willing to take up the challenges of fostering young children and babies, who may stay for months or years. As Updegraff discovered, as much as you can mentally prepare yourself for that unique role, it can be hard to deal with emotionally.

“You really, I think, need see that as the way you’re going to have a family," Updegraff says. "You need to be called to it. And for some reason, I feel like I am.”

Updegraff says she needs a little more time to heal, but she'll foster again.

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