In the abusive underside of California's foster care system, a child's life can be worth as little as $150.
After culling through 1.1 million reports of abuse, the Los Angeles Times showed earlier this week that the privatized system of foster care created 27 years ago to save money and better assist children in need is itself in need of dramatic overhaul.
At least four children have died in the past five years as a result of abuse in Los Angeles County homes overseen by private foster family agencies, The Times reported. None had died in government-run homes during that time.
No doubt, private nonprofit organizations have a role in the foster care system, which at any time cares for 59,000 abandoned, neglected and abused children. But The Times identified gaps in oversight by the California Department of Social Services.
One of the problems identified by The Times in a story published Wednesday: "The flow of money to private foster care — now about $400 million a year — introduced a powerful incentive for some to spend as little as possible and pack homes with as many children as they could.
"Those agencies are so short of homes that they accept convicted criminals as foster parents. The state has granted waivers to at least 5,300 people convicted of crimes. In the most egregious cases, people with waivers later maimed or killed children."
One private agency placed three children, ages 2, 3 and 4, into the home of a woman who had been accused of abusing children and whose partner had a history of drug abuse. The couple had turned the garage into a marijuana farm.
The 2-year-old was beaten into a coma in 2010. He survived but is blind in one eye and mentally disabled. Social workers who should have monitored the placement brushed aside complaints, including those from another foster child in the home who was 13.
In another instance, a private agency placed a 2-year-old girl in the home of a woman who was a convicted thief. She beat the baby to death. The agency that placed the baby with the thief received a maximum fine allowed under the law, $150.
The state also is supposed to make sure social workers don't have caseloads of more than 15 children. But in many instances, social workers boost their income by skirting the caseload rules by working full time for multiple agencies.
Will Lightbourne, head of the California Department of Social Services, has pushed to overhaul the system. A report is supposed to be delivered to the Legislature in October 2014, none too soon.
The Times reported that the Tennessee system works well. There, agencies are paid based on performance, unlike California, which pays private agencies $1,870 per child per month, regardless of outcome.
The Times' findings add important detail to what has been reported before. In past years, The Sacramento Bee's Marjie Lundstrom has documented the maltreatment of foster children placed in Sacramento homes by private foster family agencies. And in 2003, then-Assembly Member Bill Maze, R-Visalia, asked the state to investigate Fresno County's foster care department after three children died within a month.
Reports of child abuse in foster care shouldn't sadden us. They should infuriate us enough to change the system.
Government must intervene when parents abuse children. But if authorities take the ultimate step of removing a child from a parent's home, they must make sure that child is kept safe.
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