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The Broken Foster System of L.A.

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How badly broken is the foster system in Los Angeles?

So badly that a County Department of Children and Family Services social worker ordered to take an ailing infant to see a doctor last month instead clocked out, saying she'd already put in an 11-hour shift without a break. The baby died.

So badly that when DCFS actually tried to do the right thing by a kid it bollixed it up so badly that a court stepped in -- and made matters worse. That's what happened last week when a California Court of Appeal panel ruled that DCFS failed to provide adequate reunification services in the case of a daughter who'd been taken from a mother who tested positive for cocaine when her child was born (as did the baby) and ordered it to try again.

L.A. County has roughly 50,000 kids in its system, either in direct foster care or referred to the system with substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect (there are by some counts 500,000 kids in foster care nationwide), and the mantra at DCFS for the last few years has been reunification above all else.

It's a policy not uncommon in protective services circles around the country and under certain circumstances it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and strong families make for a strong society. So sure, do what you can to keep them together.

But sometimes building a strong society means putting a kid in the kind of safe, nurturing environment in which he/she can thrive. As in all things, it's the details -- not the rules -- that count.

In L.A., where outrage at DCFS is a regular occurrence, the reunification issue boiled over in 2005 when a 2-year-old girl was taken from a safe, loving foster home on a couple-hours notice and moved to her great aunt and uncle. She was dead of blunt force trauma not long after.

The latest death on DCFS's watch, of a seven-week-old who had spent her whole life in a Skid Row mission, came in early August. The L.A. Times reported last week that a DCFS social worker ordered to take an ailing infant to a 24-hour clinic for assessment said "she was 'unable to go back' to the mission because she had already worked '11 hours without a break' and thought she could take the child the next day."

The baby died before being taken to the clinic of what the coroner ruled was homicide by starvation, dehydration and neglect. There's plenty of blame to go around on this one -- the mom (who's now in the wind), the staff at the mission, and yes, DCFS. Sure, caseloads are overwhelming. The L.A. County Civil Grand Jury reviewed DCFS's handling of abuse cases and reported earlier this year that the agency handled nearly 157,000 referrals in 2006, about the same as in 2005, when about 90 percent required an in-person visit.

(The Grand Jury report said that in 2006, 121 children under DCFS supervision died, among them 53 homicides. The report said that nationwide an estimated 1,440 child under protective services care died in 2004, the most recent data available.)

Perhaps the heavy caseload explains last week's loss in the appellate court, in which the judge ruled that "DCFS knew very early on that (the mother) had serious mental health issues. Yet, despite the juvenile court's order... to provide (her) with referrals for a psychiatric evaluation, DCFS did not comply with this directive for more than five months...

"As we will be ordering reinstitution of the reunification services," the ruling went on, "DCFS should do so promptly so as to ensure that (she) has a chance to reunify with her daughter."

I, for one, have my fingers crossed for the little girl born with cocaine in her system.