Violence and ‘crisis’: How hundreds of L.A. County’s abused children ended up in hotels

A woman stumbled into the palatial lobby of downtown Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel earlier this year, pleading for someone to call the police.

Deep bruises were starting to form around her eyes. Blood crusted around her nostrils and mouth. She was so dazed that she didn’t notice a telephone cord wrapped around her neck.

She was a social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services who said a 16-year-old foster boy battered and sexually assaulted her in one of the hotel’s guest rooms.

The boy was one of hundreds of foster youths who Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency has placed in rented hotel rooms because it has no foster homes for them, according to reporting by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and The Times that included dozens of interviews as well as county records obtained under the California Public Records Act.

The alleged attack — as well as another on a social worker by a foster youth at a different hotel weeks later — has sparked criticism from those within the agency who say that such violence was inevitable.

One high-level DCFS administrator wrote to Supervisor Janice Hahn earlier this year to tell her that the situation was a “crisis” and “totally out of control.”

The children placed in the hotels are usually among those with some of the most significant untreated trauma and the gravest histories of violence.

Though group homes frequently have security and teams of staff members, children in the hotels have often been supervised by a single social worker, sometimes with scant knowledge of their backgrounds, little training to de-escalate potential violence and no on-site colleagues when things go wrong, according to DCFS policy documents and interviews with staff.

State law prohibits housing foster children for extended periods in places like the Biltmore that are not licensed to provide foster care. Over the years, state and county child welfare authorities have repeatedly promised to halt the practice of warehousing youths in unlicensed places that are unable to meet abused and neglected children’s need for safety, education and mental health services — yet it’s happening again.

The reason this time, according to government data and experts throughout the system, is the state’s most severe shortage of licensed foster homes in memory.

In 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown responded to complaints of substandard care in group foster homes by signing landmark legislation to move thousands of foster youths out of group facilities and into new foster family homes. The group homes now house a fraction of the youths they once did, but the additional foster parents to take them in have not materialized.

Until a solution is reached, DCFS Director Brandon Nichols said, the Biltmore is “the last resort” for social workers who can now find no other place for children experiencing some of the most vexing problems with drugs, sex trafficking, violence and mental health disorders.

“It is just an emergency and better than a kid sleeping on the street that night,” Nichols said.

His agency has 18,000 foster youths but fewer licensed beds. Licensed foster parents and group homes also have the right to reject any foster child before or after their arrival. In dire circumstances, social workers sometimes look for beds in homeless shelters, but those are scarce. The only places willing to accept anyone without exception are the unlicensed hotel rooms.

“We didn’t quite anticipate how difficult this was going to be,” Nichols said.

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