Commission Eyeing Big Changes for Cali’s Child Welfare System

Amid outrage over recent deaths of children under the supervision of child welfare agencies in California, a newly formed commission is calling for sweeping reforms, according to a recent series of reports by the Los Angeles Times.

The first report revealed staggering statistics about California’s foster care system:

Those living in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children in state-supervised foster family homes, according to a Times analysis of more than 1 million hotline investigations over a recent three-year period. In Los Angeles County, at least four children died as a result of abuse or neglect over the last five years in homes overseen by private agencies.

California began privatizing portions of its foster care system nearly 30 years ago in an effort to cut costs and better serve children. Despite becoming the largest private system in the nation, it’s also become more expensive, and is alleged to have little oversight.

It is “as bottom of the barrel as you can imagine,” said Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at UC Berkeley. “They are clearly not keeping track of quality issues. It’s really quite surprising we don’t have more tragedies.”

LA County in particular has started to turn more to private agencies. Five out of six foster children who are not placed with relatives go to homes run by private agencies, reports show.

Several high-profile deaths—like eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was found dead last May with a cracked skull, bruised and burned skin, and three ribs broken—have led to action.

Now, the LA Times reports that a special LA County commission has been created to come up with far-reaching changes to improve oversight and allow for better communication between child welfare agencies.

They’re slated to propose several ideas in the coming months, including a recommendation to establish the position of child welfare czar to coordinate services between different child welfare agencies, and to make the LA County district attorney’s office a centralized “clearinghouse” for child abuse cases.

Marilyn Flynn, the dean of USC’s School of Social Work and a commission member, said the panel will probably propose changes in the way the county contracts with private foster care agencies. She argues that payments should be tied to improvements made in foster children’s lives, not just the number of days they remain with a foster family or in group homes.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said she agrees that more oversight is needed. One possibility, Mitchell said, is legislation that would allow county officials to regularly review the criminal histories of foster parents and employees of foster agencies.

The commission is expected to release its final recommendations in April.