How California’s big effort to help abused children left some with nowhere to go

Over the last 18 months, Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency has placed more than 200 foster children in hotels, sometimes for months, despite internal criticism that the practice could be dangerous. Now, county officials say, two social workers have been assaulted by foster youths in separate incidents this year at hotels, including one at downtown Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel.

The county’s decision to house foster children in hotels underscores California’s chronic shortage of families and group homes willing or able to house youths with significant untreated trauma and histories of violence.

The worsening shortage, child welfare advocates say, can be traced in large part to a landmark law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 that was supposed to improve the lives of foster children. The law — the state’s most significant child welfare reform in the last decade — curtailed the use of group homes for foster youths in favor of placing abused or neglected children with relatives or licensed foster families. Most group homes either closed or were limited to providing housing for up to six months.

The state’s count for children living in group homes has dropped from 3,655 to 1,727 since the law took effect in 2017, but the state has failed to recruit enough foster families to house the displaced youths.

Despite its effect, the law has received little public scrutiny.

What was the goal of the law?

The primary goal was “to move the system away from thinking about placing children in beds and acknowledge that there’s nothing more important for youths than being loved and nurtured and cared for in a family,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, who grew up in group homes before becoming a lawyer leading the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco public interest firm that was among the most ardent supporters of the new law.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 403, came with tens of millions of dollars to aid the transition, including the recruitment and training of additional foster families.

But that money represents just a tiny fraction of child welfare spending, which is $2.9 billion annually in Los Angeles County alone.

Overall spending has been on the decline in recent years throughout the state, and lawmakers hoped this law would eventually allow further cuts. Children at high-level group homes were costing taxpayers about $11,000 per month for each child.

Group homes have also been the site of substandard care and scandalous abuse over the years. Two decades after Los Angeles County officials shut down MacLaren Children’s Center in El Monte, for example, former foster children are still coming forward with accounts of sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of staff.

Santos Amigon, now a forklift driver at Imperfect Foods, spent time in several Los Angeles County group homes around the time that the 2015 law was approved, and he was initially hopeful about its impact. Amigon recalled being segregated in special schools intended only for group home youths that he considered substandard.

“So you got about 30 or 40 boys in there that don’t want to be there. Of course, there’s fights going on,” said Amigon, who now advocates for improved services as a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Foster Youth Institute.

Amigon said he still cheers the curtailment of the state’s use of group homes, but he lamented that some foster children are being housed in hotels.

“That’s not a long-term solution,” he said.

How do people view the law’s effects today?

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s social services secretary, Kim Johnson, touts the law as a success. “In just a short time,” she said last year in a written statement, “this effort has resulted in more children being placed with their own relatives or in other home-based settings. In the end, this helps youths experience better outcomes.”

Johnson’s staff later clarified that the number of children with their own relatives or in other home-based settings has actually gone down. The only thing that has risen is the percentage of licensed foster care beds that are provided by foster parents instead of group homes.

Rodriguez, the former foster youth who became a leading advocate for the law, said state officials have failed to the extent that children have left group homes without finding a stable foster family home.

The state’s plan depended heavily on finding more foster parents who, with the support of improved mental health care and other services provided by the county, could better rehabilitate abused and neglected youths.

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