State regulators have begun imposing fines on Los Angeles County for not placing children in foster homes quickly enough. It has cited the county for dozens of "overstays" in facilities not designed for long-term housing. It is believed to be the first time a county in California has been fined for overstays: The violations that took place in September totaled $600.
The issue is not new: L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services has had periodic problems with overstays in its after-hours reception centers for years. It has been exacerbated this year by a major shortage in foster homes for young children in Los Angeles County. The combination has made the already difficult task of placing children with foster parents even harder.
When social workers or police remove a child from their home, they're generally taken to a district DCFS office, where a placement team immediately begins making calls to find a home for the child. When the office closes at 5 p.m., any child who has not been placed with a guardian is moved to one of two after-hours centers, depending on their age. Additionally, any child taken into custody on evenings, weekends, or holidays ends up in one of the after-hours centers until they're placed in a home.
The Children's Welcome Center, a former daycare center, serves as the reception center for small children. Older children wait in a converted break room in a DCFS office just south of downtown L.A. Legally, children cannot be kept in either place longer than 24 hours because they're not designed or certified as long-term housing. But it happens when DCFS workers can't locate an appropriate bed. According to regulators with the California Department of Social Services, it happens too often.
In August, CDSS threatened to start imposing fines on L.A. for overstays. In November, the department sent a letter to Los Angeles levying its first penalties. The step marks the first time, at least in recent years, the state has fined a county for overstays.
In the letter dated November 1, state regulators cite recent numbers from the county that "indicate that the overstay population is not significantly reduced and that the problem is not abated."
According to the letter, in September, there were 60 overstays at the Children's Welcome Center, 11 of which involved "extenuating circumstances" beyond the county's control. Numbers for October show that as of October 27, there were 34 overstays, 10 of which involved extenuating circumstances. The fines for September totaled $600. October fines have not been determined.
DCFS Director Philip Browning said his agency is well aware of the problem and constantly working to permanently solve it.
"We've made progress, but we're not where we want to be, that's for sure," Browning said. The agency's been somewhat hamstrung in its efforts by an unusually high number of calls to its child welfare hotline in recent months, the director said.
Last year at this time – when overstays were not much of a problem – DCFS was getting about 11,000 calls to its hotline every month, Browning said. Now, the volume's up to about 20,000 a month.
The director said the increased volume comes at a time when high profile incidents have increased awareness about child abuse.
"We have to follow up on each one of those calls," Browning said. "And when we go out and aren't really comfortable that that child is safe, then we will have to detain that child."
Browning said reducing overstays will be a matter of recruiting more families to take in children – the department has added about 75 in the last 6 months. He said his office is working with the state to raise monthly payments for foster parents who are willing to take in small children (they tend to be expensive to house) and grant more money to cover child care for foster parents who work.