Education

LA lacks foster care families for infants, toddlers

Facing a continuing shortage of foster homes for infants and toddlers, L.A. is trying to adjust.
Facing a continuing shortage of foster homes for infants and toddlers, L.A. is trying to adjust.
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Facing a continuing shortage of foster homes for children under five, Los Angeles County is hoping to make it easier for foster parents to take in very young children.

A new program, if approved Tuesday by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, would provide immediate childcare slots to foster parents and relatives of foster kids who suddenly find themselves caring for a baby or toddler. 

"We really want to remove as many obstacles as possible," said Deborah Silver, division chief at the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. 

About 30 percent of children removed from their families  in Los Angeles are under the age of five. For years, officials have struggled to recruit enough families to take them in.

DCFS did a series of focus groups with parents who had decided they could no longer foster, and childcare issues continually came up as a key reason. Both foster parents and relatives who take in foster kids said that getting a call to take in a small child, and then turning around the next day and trying to find a daycare placement was a struggle. So is paying for childcare.

Under the program, out of DCFS's Van Nuys office, slots will be held open in facilities, starting April 1, and DCFS will subsidize the cost of ongoing childcare. 

The $468,000 program, partially privately funded and partially run with state dollars, is intended as a pilot that could, if successful, be rolled out countywide. 

Cynthia Stogel, the foster care and adoption coordinator at Children's Bureau, an organization that among other things, recruits and aids foster parents, said the pilot is a good step.

"With our families, they don't know when the children are going to arrive and they don't know how long the children are going to stay," Stogel said. "So to reserve a space with a childcare provider can be challenging."

Stogel said she's seen the uptick in small children needing foster families in recent years, particularly infants. 

"We get calls every day and we don't always have a family for those babies," she said.

Some of the rise, she said, looks to be from drug use — infants are coming into care who've tested positive, or their mothers have tested positive, for methamphetamine or another narcotic in the hospital at birth. Partially, she said, the rise may be due to the increase in homelessness in L.A., which can lead to conditions that are grounds for removal of kids from their families.

Silver said DCFS has also generally seen a decline in the number of foster care families, by about 50 percent from 1999 to 2012. 

"There's a lot of reasons people don't want to foster children," Silver said, from childcare issues to economic concerns, to difficulties with transporting foster children to the variety of appointments and family visitations required by the courts. DCFS is attempting to systematically address all of those issues. 

Stogel said an enduing issue for recruiting families to take infants is simply the fear of becoming attached to a baby in their care.

"In foster care, reunification with their birth families  is always the fist plan," she said. "When a family wants to adopt, they have to adjust their goals and their thinking to that plan."