Los Angeles' traffic issues, among other problems, are hampering one of the child welfare system's basic functions: getting foster kids face time with their parents.
According to a recent Los Angeles County report, nearly 10,000 children in the county's foster care system are receiving "reunification services" designed to help repair their families and return them to their parents — and visitation is a core, legally required component.
"It's one of the most essential services we can provide," said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Visits help keep children connected with their families, she said, and provide opportunities to repair damage their relationships have suffered.
But there are inefficiencies in how the county manages the visitation system, officials said, and that's sucking up staff time and eating into the time that children should be spending with their parents.
DCFS calculated social workers are spending 6 million hours a year scheduling and facilitating visits between foster children and their caretakers, doing things like finding an open room in one of the county's visitation facilities, coordinating everyone who's supposed to attend visitations, and dealing with cancellations.
Patricia Curry, a member of the county's Commission for Children and Families, which advises the county Board of Supervisors on services for at-risk children, said the current system is also a drain on foster parents, who often provide transportation and supervision during visits.
"You might have two kids from different families and now you're doing visits five days a week," she said. "When foster parents are getting calls about taking a child, the first thing out of their mouths is, 'What are the visitation hours?'"
That's exacerbating the county's current shortage of foster parents, she said.
L.A. county's size doesn't help. A child from Torrance, for instance, might be placed in a foster home in the Antelope Valley, resulting in a long commute to meet with his or her parents.
"You're looking at an hour or so on the freeway in both directions, two, three times per week," said Brandon Nichols, acting director of DCFS. "Visitation is an issue this county has struggled with going back several years. It's just the geographic size of the county, traffic, and then just the scope of our system."
Trying to place kids with foster families near their parents is a potential solution, Nichols said. DCFS is planning to do targeted recruitments in areas where there aren't enough foster families to meet the need, he said. The department is also looking to get input from technology companies that manage complex systems with multiple venues, cancellations and moving parts for ideas on how to improve the system, Nichols said.
"Maybe the way Southwest schedules airplanes, or Uber uses technology to see if they need more drivers on the road," Nichols said.
Devon Brooks, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said poverty is another factor that plays into the complexities of the system.
Parents may be working more than one job and, on top of that, they may have other court-ordered appointments to attend with mental-health or substance-abuse counselors. Placing children near their homes may help, Brooks said, but also has limitations.
"The problem is, sometimes caregivers will have to move because they need employment, or the house they live in they can no longer afford," Brooks said.
As Los Angeles County officials continue to work through these visitation problems, he said, it will be important to look for multiple strategies, monitor what's working, and at what cost.