Director of the Department of Children and Family Services Phillip Browning holds up a sign with the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000.
Gesenia Macias is a social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services. She works the night shift, which investigates reports of child abuse after 5 p.m., when other offices close for the night.
"You never know what you are going to come across when you are knocking at someone’s door," Macias said.
She goes on to tell the story of a recent case: Macias got a call that police had children in custody. She arrived and found six kids from multiple mothers.
Her job was to sort out who was biologically related to whom, and find the kids a place to stay — all within a window of 23 hours and 59 minutes. It's the deadline at which, legally, the kids would need to be in a place that’s certified to care for them, like a foster home or shelter.
The clock was already ticking.
Too often in the past eight months, L.A. County has missed this deadline, according to state regulators. And as soon as Wednesday, California's Department of Social Services said the county could be subject to fines of $200 a day for operating an "unlicensed emergency shelter." As of Wednesday morning, state officials had not taken action.
Cases like the one Macias encountered can be complicated, which makes it difficult to place kids by the deadline. Ideally, children are supposed to be placed in or near their neighborhoods where they live and with their siblings.
Hypothetically, a social worker might have a set of three siblings, aged newborn to 14, and start making calls and ask potential foster parents: Who has room for three kids? Of those that say yes, can they handle a newborn? Of those that say yes again, will they also accept teens?
As social workers make 10, 20, sometimes 100 calls to place a child, the kid waits in one of two places: For those under 11, there’s the Children’s Welcome Center, a converted daycare; for older kids, a converted break room in the fifth floor of an office building just south of Downtown L.A.
"It took me about 14 hours to do what I needed to do for that case," Macias said, and that was with the help of four other social workers in the building.
She made the deadline. But lately, the state says that many don't.
For instance, in a 10-day period in July, 22 kids stayed at the Children’s Welcome Center for more than 24 hours—of them, nine stayed over two days; four stayed more than three days; and in one case, it took over four days to place a child in foster care.
The problem’s not a new one: L.A. was cited by state regulators for “overstays” in July 2011. The numbers dropped in 2012, but climbed again in 2013 and brought a new round of state reprimands.
Nor is Los Angeles County alone in citations for overstays.
Last year, the state scolded Humboldt County for bunking incoming foster kids at a Quality Inn hotel for more than 24 hours. In Santa Clara County, according to state regulators, one child spent 37 days in an intake center. But until now, not one of the 58 counties in the state has been fined, at least not in recent years.
"I think there might be a question in the mind of the state of how seriously we're taking this," said Philip Browning, director of L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services.
His department, he said, is fully aware of the problem and on track to solve it, albeit maybe not as quickly as the state would like.
Among the steps the county proposed before the threat of fines came down, DCFS has reached out to the county's probation department to conduct criminal background checks of the family members of detained kids who offer to take them in – a process previously handled by the state's justice department and which has been slowed by budget cuts.
Browning said he's also started pilot projects aimed at testing what might attract more people to sign up as foster parents. A shortage of homes, especially for smaller kids, is a major factor contributing to overstays, he said. Ideas include offering foster parents free baby formula and diapers, and on a limited basis, offering a stipend for childcare to foster parents who work.
The director said he's also working with foster care agencies to rewrite certification policies that require incoming foster parents to apply as adoptive parents as well.
Browning said the state fines are serious, but not the only thing on his mind. While he's concerned about keeping children in intake centers longer than the state mandate, he's more concerned with making sure they're going to the right home.
"I would rather exceed that 24 hour time frame and place the child with an aunt or a relative that the child knows instead of putting them in a foster home 60 miles away," Browning said.
That said, over the next couple of weeks, the county will weigh quicker fixes to the overstay problem, Browning said. The state has indicated they'll stop fining L.A. County if it applies to have the Children's Welcome Center – where small children are taken – certified as an emergency shelter.
L.A. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Tuesday that option is a non-starter for him.
For more than 20 years, the county did operate such a shelter, MacLaren Children's Center, which was shut down in 2003. At the time, there were allegations MacLaren was a nasty place where children languished because there was no urgency to move them into proper placements.
"We don't want to go back to those days," Yaroslavsky said. "Compared to MacLaren, this is a walk in the park. We need to bring ourselves into compliance, and Phil Browning is working on it and the state and the stakeholders need to be a little tolerant."
Browning said the other option is: "to get some of our residential providers who are already in the business to provide additional shelter care services."
Miriam Krinsky, a policy consultant for the California Endowment and an expert in child welfare, said a county-operated shelter should not be an option.
"If you build it, it'll quickly be filled," she said.
Sheltering with community providers may be a better option, but it depends on the type of providers and how long kids would be kept with them.
"There needs to be strict understanding that there'd be a time limit," Krinsky said. "Even under the best circumstances, when children have been removed from their home, what they need is stability and support. They don't need to find themselves in a revolving door of temporary placements."
Judge Michael Nash, who presides over LA County's juvenile division, said the overstay problem has cropped up semi-frequently in the decade since MacLaren closed.
"The bottom line is there should have been some better planning about what to do a long time ago, so they're reaping the result of not taking appropriate action when MacLaren closed," Nash said.
Now, the problem's compounded by an unusually high number of child abuse reports this year.
"I don't know if the state fining them $200 a day is really much of a sanction," Nash said. "But the negative publicity they're receiving around this might be punishment enough."
Over the coming weeks, the county will decide whether to take immediate action to stop the state from acting. Or it could simply eat the fines – and the stigma that comes along with them – to give Browning a chance to reduce overstays through long-term reforms.