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35 Foster Children Dead Since 2008 in LA County -- How Many Is Too Many?

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Can you hear the drumbeat, right out of a battle march? An egregious death: 2-year old Viola Vanclief was killed by hammer-wielding caregiver. A hammer. Viola died while in the care of a foster care agency, United Care, that had a history of sloppy work including citations for caregivers choking, hitting or whipping the state's children. The response from our public leaders is predictable: fire the LA County Child Welfare Director, Trish Ploehn, and/or technology will save the children. Neither option gets at the heart of the problem, yet both proposals offer the public a convenient scapegoat and a hallow solution.

Trish Ploehn is a 30 year veteran of the department, and has provided leadership to a long troubled agency. There have been four chiefs since 1998; nearly all the previous chiefs were run out of town following such a crisis revelation. Perhaps one or two were right to have been replaced, but all four and perhaps now five? It is time to try a new strategy other than throwing out the chief.

The other proposal advanced by the County Supervisors is a technological patch that would improve the ability of authorized caregivers (social workers, therapists, etc) to share data and information about the youth and their placements. As of now, the foster youth in state custody are being privacy'd to death. Nearly each actor in the life of a child is using a different software system, and those systems are inaccessible to legitimate state sister agencies. Left to coordinate between them all are the overworked, underpaid social workers. With better access, such oversights could be avoided since social workers would have more information about the placements.

This is worthy, but not as a solution to the current crisis. It is a long overdue stand-alone fix. If my Quicken personal financial software can pull data from various credit cards, student loans, car loan, home mortgages and various bank accounts, and put that data in an easily consumable format, then surely we can do the same with all the agencies involved in the life of a foster child (the courts, social workers, therapists, schools, probation, etc). That full perspective can empower the social worker and state agencies to fulfill their roles. However, with caseloads and budgets as they are, this may not be the solution it might otherwise be in an ideal world.

Trish Ploehn has earned the respect of these workers in the department by her 30 years in the trenches in LA County. She has seen the last four Chiefs come and go; the difference, and why the number 35 is suddenly in the headlines, is that now there is a state law on the books since 2008 that opens the previously secret information about the number of deaths. Data going back further might reveal a downward trend in such deaths, as Chief Ploehn has led the way with the support of the state's John Wagner, in an innovative program that seeks to keep kids out of care in the first place by preserving and supporting the biological families when it's safe to do so. That story will not be told with this headline about Viola Vanclief, Sarah Chavez (2, beaten to death), Dae'von Bailey (6, beaten to death), Deandre Green (2, beaten to death) screaming from the headlines.

Fix the technology, but put the blame where it belongs, on us. On all of us who do not open our homes to foster youth; put the blame on us for the endless cuts to the child welfare agency's budget; put the blame on us for paying social workers so little they cannot afford to live in the cities where they work nor pay down their student loans; put the blame on us for only paying attention for a minute when another of the state's children dies.