Children and Families
August 2, 2013
The director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services was on the hot seat. Social workers in the agency had failed to protect a young boy from the fatal blows of his mother, despite being aware of earlier abuse allegations against her.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Supervisor Gloria Molina lectured the agency’s director, who’d been summoned before the board during its weekly meeting. “This is about people not doing their jobs.” Molina demanded that the director act more forcefully to fire his “ill-trained” workers.
That kind of dressing-down easily could have occurred on any number of recent days, as the Board of Supervisors has confronted the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was allegedly tortured by his mother and boyfriend after a long history of abuse complaints. But the case that triggered Molina’s ire came in early 2004. And the director was not the current boss, Philip Browning, but David Sanders, who resigned in mid-2006.
Among the many who’ve held the top position at DCFS, Sanders was the only one to leave without being shown the door by the supervisors, his reputation intact. Now he’s voluntarily back in a new high-profile job; on Thursday, he was selected as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection by his nine colleagues during the panel’s inaugural meeting.
Each of the county’s five supervisors appointed two members to the commission, which was created on a split vote of the board to investigate systemic failures in L.A.’s child protection system. Sanders, selected by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, is the only panelist with a true insider’s perspective on the pressures and dynamics within the huge agency entrusted with the welfare of nearly 35,000 children. (Click here for a look at the other appointees.)
“I know what it’s like to have a crisis come up and turn the department in another direction,” Sanders said by phone, while making a connecting flight in Denver to his home in Seattle, where he’s now an executive with a non-profit. He says he’s “acutely aware” of not placing unnecessary demands on DCFS that would distract the agency from its primary mission of protecting children. The commission’s examination, he says, will go far beyond DCFS to investigate the performance of the broader network of agencies with a role in child safety, from law enforcement to the schools.
Since DCFS’s creation in 1984, arguably no director has had a bigger impact than Sanders—one that continues to shape the agency’s philosophical and financial strategy towards both foster care and family reunification.
In the past, the agency would receive tens of thousands of dollars in state and federal funds for every child placed in foster care. Believing this created a financial incentive to remove at-risk youngsters from their families, Sanders championed what he described at the time as “a revolutionary” funding model in which the agency would receive a flat amount to spend not only on foster care but on new services and programs to keep families together.
The so-called waiver, which took effect in 2007, has been widely praised for dramatically reducing the number of children in foster care. But in recent years concerns have surfaced over whether this shift in funding has created another kind of incentive, keeping kids in potentially dangerous family situations so DCFS can use the money it saves on foster care for other departmental priorities.
Asked how he’d approach having to investigate the impact on DCFS of one of his greatest legacies, Sanders said: “I don’t feel reluctance to attack any policy that isn’t relevant to the circumstances today…I don’t think anything is sacred, whether it was stuff I thought was important 10 years ago or today. My belief is that there is a fundamental responsibility to assure children are safe.”
Although it’s been seven years since Sanders’ departure, he says he still works closely with his former agency—one that he’s now expected to approach as an independent fact-finder.
Sanders is an executive vice president of the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, founded in 1966 to focus on foster care and improving child welfare systems throughout the country. He says the non-profit organization has “done a number of initiatives with the county,” including helping Browning and other DCFS officials rewrite the agency’s policy manual. “I have a passion for the work in Los Angeles,” he says.
Sanders says his selection as chairman of the child protection commission was “very humbling,” especially considering “the incredibly impressive group” that’s been assembled by the Board of Supervisors. He says the commission “isn’t going to tolerate a repeat” of earlier investigative efforts in which recommendations for reform went unheeded.
“This,” he says, “is a group that is going to be very action oriented.”
June 13, 2013
As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s dads this weekend, how’s this for a heroic (not to mention exhausting) feat of fatherhood? For three consecutive months in mid-2005, Los Angeles County social workers delivered three tiny foster children to a couple who’d once tucked away any hope of being parents.
The oldest of the children was 18 months. The middle one was 4 months. And the youngest had been in the world for just 3 days.
“We made it through that glorious summer, a scorcher without air conditioning,” says John Ireland, as he recalls the diapers and feedings and joys of it all. “It was such a tremendous, intensive parenting experience”—one made even more complicated by the demographics of the household. For there were two men of the house, “Dad” and “Daddy.” John is married to Duncan Ireland, his partner of 20 years.
Like many gay men, John, 42, says he’d come to believe the subtle and overt messages in society that parenthood was out of reach for people like him. His own parents, he says, “let go” of their hopes of having grandchildren through him after he “came out.”
But all that changed, John says, after he and Duncan talked to social workers from L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services and the Southern California Foster Family & Adoption Agency during an informational fair at Plummer Park in West Hollywood.
“We were not only welcomed, we were actively recruited,” John says, noting that he and Duncan, 40, promptly underwent nine training sessions for certification as foster parents. That training included an emphasis on family transparency. “What they need is honesty. You don’t avoid any topics with a foster child,” says John, who was wed to Duncan in 2008, before California voters banned same-sex marriage through Proposition 8, which is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In all, the couple provided foster care to four children, eventually adopting a sister and brother, now 8 and 5, respectively. “We would have adopted them all, if we could have,” says John, a consultant and fundraiser for non-profit groups who served as the stay-at-home dad while Duncan continued his law practice. Today, John helps lead an organization called Raise A Child, which works with the county and others to spread the word about opportunities for gays and lesbians to become foster and adoptive parents.
County child welfare officials know that some people may not approve of the government actively seeking gay and lesbian parents. But those officials say the county needs every willing and qualified adult possible to provide a safe and caring environment for the more than 16,000 foster youth who must be removed from dangerous homes.
“We need to recruit everyone who can help us”—including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples and individuals—says DCFS supervising children’s social worker Bryan Miller. “The LGBT community has been an underutilized resource for many years. We’re just catching up.” Miller says a UCLA study last year concluded that foster children do equally well when placed with gay, lesbian or heterosexual parents.
As for the critics, Miller offers this challenge: “If you’re going to complain, I want to see you at our next foster/adoption orientation.”
In recent years, the county’s foster care system has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for sometimes failing to protect the welfare of children living in group or individual homes. Just this week, the Board of Supervisors voted to end a decades-long relationship with Teens Happy Homes amid allegations of financial improprieties and child abuse detailed in the Los Angeles Times. But what rarely rises to the surface are the many profound and touching stories of success. As John explains: “These victories are small and only celebrated by those of us observing them happen.”
The experiences of John and Duncan, both as foster and adoptive parents, deserve a wider celebration.
As foster parents, John says, you’re trained to brace for the reality that the children you’ve grown to love may be reunified with relatives. That’s what happened with two of those first three youngsters to enter the couple’s life in rapid succession—Marisol and her infant brother, Isaías. Five months after coming to the Ireland home, the children were adopted by an aunt living near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. “We thought we’d never see them again,” John recalls.
When he and Duncan arrived at the aunt’s apartment, siblings in tow, she asked whether they had a keepsake photograph of the children and their foster parents. In fact, John had stashed a framed picture in their suitcase. He dug it out and handed it to her. To the men’s astonishment, she removed an image of the Virgin Mary from a wall and replaced it with the new photo.
“You are part of their lives and we want you to be part of our family,” she told them, a vow to which she’s stayed true during the past eight years by inviting the couple to birthday parties and other special occasions. “That was the best thing for those children,” John says in hindsight. “It worked exactly as the foster system was meant to be.”
As for baby No. 3, Emma, the couple adopted her in late 2005, six months after she first came to their home. And she remained an only child for nearly seven years, until John got a mid-morning call while driving along Laurel Canyon Boulevard. “Pull over and turn off the car,” an excited social worker advised. Emma’s 4-year-old brother, she reported, had entered the foster care system. Little Giovanni, who joined the family as a foster child in July, 2012, was adopted last month.
“He was so excited about being adopted,” John says, “that for two weeks when he woke up in the morning he’d ask: “Am I still a foster kid?” I’d tell him, ‘Nope, you’re no longer a foster kid.”
John is under no illusions that his family choices will be widely embraced, especially by those outside “the bubble” of Los Angeles. Not only are there two dads, but they’re white with African American children. “We don’t walk into a restaurant undercover,” he joked.
Asked what unique challenges gay couples confront, John says: “The biggest challenge is helping our kids navigate a society that is very focused on us. The spotlight is trained on our families. It’s still very controversial in our culture for gays and lesbians to parent.”
“The hardest part,” he continues,”is when we go into public. The kids are old enough to see the looks or be posed the questions in school. ‘Why do you have two dads?’ We have to prepare them to answer those questions.”
Two weeks ago, he says, he and his husband took the youngsters to a gay pride festival in the Antelope Valley. Along the road to the fairgrounds were protest signs warning, “Homo sin. Turn back.”
“How do you prepare a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old for that? We tell them that people have the right to express themselves. Some people do not agree with our family. Some people do not like families with only one parent.…The truth is that every kid has something they can be picked on about. Kids need to be taught resilience.”
This Sunday, none of those questions or pressures will be in the air when John, Duncan and their two high-energy, toothy-grinned kids who love handball and running attend “The World’s Largest Gay Father’s Day Celebration,” which includes brunch and a children’s concert.
The event is sponsored by, among others, John’s Raise A Child group, the City of West Hollywood and the Pop Luck Club, an organization of gay dads, prospective dads and their families. John is the current president, with duties that include storing the club’s banners in his garage and making sure there’s plenty of Capri Sun juice boxes for monthly potlucks.
Says John: “I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world…besides my husband.”
May 22, 2013
The Board of Supervisors this week gave the go-ahead for an immediate staff infusion to step up oversight of foster and group homes, as the county Department of Children and Family Services works to develop longer term, comprehensive strategies to correct long-running problems in foster care monitoring.
While no one contends that the seven new positions approved Tuesday would in themselves reverse years of breakdowns and concerns, the move was seen as a concrete step in the right direction.
“This is an attempt to do something about the problem by increasing the resources, human resources, that the department has to address this in a more pro-active and thorough manner,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Under questioning by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who proposed the staffing increase as part of a broader package of reforms approved last month, DCFS director Philip Browning said the unit responsible for such monitoring had lost 15 staffers over the past decade—a drop from 51 employees to 36.
“Frankly, staff cuts do have an impact,” he told supervisors.
He said the new positions in the department’s Out-of-Home Care Investigation Section “would assist us in ensuring that state-licensed foster homes and group homes are monitored to the same level as the foster family agencies.”
Browning emphasized that the move was not a “total solution,” and noted that broader solutions are still being developed.
According to a letter to supervisors from the county’s Chief Executive Office, the staffing expansion will enable “timely and comprehensive reviews” of allegations and incidents, and will make it possible to more quickly identify patterns that require county intervention.
The board’s action came following the disclosure of long-running allegations of impropriety within Teens Happy Homes, a foster family agency under contract to the county.
February 27, 2013
There’s a secret to getting your kid into a great summer camp: Sign up before spring.
Unfortunately, most parents remember that secret just as the school year is ending. But for those who do register early, Los Angeles County is a summer playground of options.
Here’s a sampling of what’s out there. Act quickly. Some already are selling out.
- Enrollment opened last week for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art summer art camp, and some weeks are already fully booked. Several are still open, though, with artist-led workshops for art-loving kids aged 6-13. The camp runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. starting June 10, and proof of age is required. Tuition is $365 per week ($325 for NexGen members). Financial aid for art camp is also available. For more information, call 323-857-6512 or click here.
- Sign-ups also opened this month at the popular Summer Nature Camp at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, which offers weeklong sessions of outdoor and indoor fun for children aged 5-10. The program runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with extended care from 8-9 a.m. and 3:30-5 p.m. if parents need it. Sessions start June 10 and run through the week of August 5. Tuition excluding extended care is $300 a week for Arboretum members and $335 for non-members. Half-day sessions also are available, and there’s a 10% sibling discount. For more information, call 626-821-4623 or click here.
- Another big crowd pleaser is the Adventures in Nature Day Camp at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which offers sessions in everything from fossil labs to filmmaking for kids in kindergarten through 8th grade. Registration opens March 1 for the weeklong sessions, which start June 24 and run through the week of August 5. Program hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with extended care from 8-9 a.m. and 3-5 p.m. if needed. Tuition excluding extended care is $250 a week for members and $300 a week for non-members. A limited number of scholarships are available. To sign up early, watch this space. For more information, call 213-763-3348 or click here.
- The Mountains Restoration Trust’s Discovery Nature Camp for little naturalists has some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that it will only be available for one week—the week of June 24—this summer, and there are only 18 available spaces. The good news is that if you’re reading this, you could be first in line. The camp, which operates out of a historic farmhouse in the Santa Monica Mountains, offers hands-on interaction with nature for children aged 8-12. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and tuition for the week is $260. For more information, call project manager Susan Haugland at 818-591-1701 or click here.
- Nothing says summer in SoCal like Junior Lifeguards, but good programs can require some advance swimming prep. Registration for returning junior guards in the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s program starts March 4. This year’s program runs Monday through Friday from July 1 to August 2, with morning or afternoon sessions in crucial ocean skills for kids aged 9-17. Fee is $476 and financial aid is available. New registrants must show proof of age and pass a swim test. Experienced Junior Guards 16 and over can qualify for the department’s Cadet Program. For much more information, or to find the camp nearest you, call 310-939-7214 or click here.
- The surf and beach camps traditionally operated by the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches & Harbors are still on hiatus, due to budget cuts. But plenty of community beach programs have arisen to fill the gap in the meantime. For a list of community-based summer youth camps operated at local beaches, click here.
- Just keeping an eye out for kid-friendly outings? Check out SummerSounds at the Hollywood Bowl. A music festival designed just for little ones, SummerSounds features two concerts daily through July and August, at 10 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., plus arts and craft workshops, for kids 3-11. The music ranges from gospel to mariachi to reggae to traditional Filipino music—and it’s a bargain. Tickets aren’t on sale yet, but traditionally they have been $7 regardless of age and $5 for workshops. For more information as summer approaches, watch this space.
October 12, 2012
Los Angeles’ youngest children have a new friend in high places.
Kim Belshé, the former head of the state Health and Human Services Agency, has been named executive director of First 5 L.A.
“I really think that First 5 L.A. can be the leading voice in the state for improving outcomes for young children and their families,” Belshé said in an interview. She said she is looking forward to helping her organization “change the life trajectory of young children in Los Angeles County.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the First 5 board, praised Belshé as a prominent and accomplished leader who has what it takes to lead the children’s organization forward.
“She is one of the most respected leaders in health and human services in the state of California,” he said in a statement. “Kim is committed to First 5’s mission of improving the quality of life of all children 0-5, and she has the talent, intellect and skill to do this job.”
First 5 L.A. was created to oversee the county’s allocation of funds from Proposition 10, the Rob Reiner-supported initiative that imposed a 50-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to raise revenue to improve the lives of California’s youngest children.
In July, First 5 announced an ambitious plan to accelerate spending of the funds it has received. Nearly $400 million is now in the pipeline to fund anti-obesity efforts, along with health, dental and vision care services as well as an unprecedented project to house homeless children and their families.
In 2011, a scathing audit criticized the agency for moving far too slowly in spending its available funds. No malfeasance was found, however. The agency’s previous executive director, Evelyn V. Martinez, resigned in November, 2011.
Belshé, 52, a San Francisco native, currently is senior policy advisor with the Public Policy Institute of California. She has a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard and a master’s in public policy from Princeton.
She begins work with First 5 early next month.
August 22, 2012
The toddler in the pink shoes had arrived early Sunday, after her single father was taken into custody on a DUI. Social workers called foster home after foster home, but none would take her. One woman agreed, then reneged, saying she couldn’t handle a 21-month-old baby. A grandmother was willing, but her home wasn’t safe.
As precious hours passed, the frustration continued. But there was at least one consolation for the displaced child: For the first time in nearly a decade, tots in her situation had somewhere to wait besides the Department of Children and Family Services command post. When bedtime came, the toddler got a warm bath, a hot meal, a clean crib and a loving shelter in a brand new county center for children awaiting foster care.
Tucked into a corner of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center campus, the county’s new Child Awaiting Placement Center has been operating to rave reviews since July 16. The CAP Center can feed, house and care for as many as 15 children up to the age of 10 while DCFS workers canvass for foster homes.
The center opened after reports last year that DCFS was housing children in the department’s Emergency Response Command Post when social workers couldn’t find placements, and downplaying the situation because they feared repercussions from their managers.
Though the command post was created to investigate child abuse allegations on nights and weekends, it has morphed in recent years into a de facto children’s shelter; since the 2003 demise of the troubled MacLaren Children’s Center, the command post is the only DCFS office that never closes.
But the command post—a suite of offices that moved last year from a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise to the downtown L.A. Mart, which houses high-end furniture showrooms—does not have a state license to house children, and by law cannot provide shelter for more than 24 hours.
Earlier this year, county auditors reported that they had seen as many as 10 infants, children and teenagers at a time sleeping at the command post last year. Some older children had histories of violence and severe mental illness, and some babies were sleeping in car seats.
Meanwhile, auditors found, social workers were struggling to find emergency placements; on one night, 11 of 14 foster care facilities called by command post staffers simply let the phone ring; the other three were either filled, closed or had changed their phone numbers.
“We had all these kids coming in,” says DCFS Regional Administrator Frank Ramos. “And we were trying to make sure they were safe in this business office. But at the same time we also had to respond to, say, officers who just did a drug bust and had called to say, ‘We’re at the home, and we need you to come now.’ ”
Enter the CAP Center, which was conceived two years ago by Dr. Astrid Heger, who directs the county’s 24-hour hub for treating victims of child abuse. Housed in a bright, loft-like space that spans a sleeping area, a big playroom, a child-scaled bathroom, a playground and an eat-in kitchen, the center is adjacent to Heger’s clinic.
“It used to be a child care center for employees and patients at the [County-USC] Medical Center before they moved to their new hospital building,” says Heger, adding that after the move, the area reverted to storage space.
Because children who come to the command post are brought to Heger for medical examinations, she says, she saw the need coming. “All the emergency response workers who were coming in here kept saying, ‘Can’t we just leave these kids here? Because the command post isn’t a very good space for them to be in,’ ” she recalls.
Heger’s operation, a multi-disciplinary project known as the Violence Intervention Program, is publicly funded, but also is subsidized by a foundation; deciding that “if we build it, they will come,” she asked one of her private donors, children’s author Cornelia Funke, to help renovate some of the county hub space.
When the Board of Supervisors inevitably demanded action, she says, the space was prepped, thanks to Funke’s $100,000 donation. DCFS kicked in $40,000 for touch-ups, and the founders of Guess? Inc. donated furniture, adds Heger.
The proximity to VIP ensured that medical care and mental health services would be available if needed; the hospital supplied hot meals for the children. Although DCFS officials estimate the center eventually will cost about $2 million to operate with its own staff, the Department of Health Services has for now sent certified nurse assistants to cover the first two months of childcare. DHS leases the space to DCFS at no cost.
Forty-six children arrived during the center’s first week. On the first Saturday night, 14 of its 15 beds were filled. “There were sisters asleep on the couch with their arms around each other, and a teenaged mom with her 2-year-old over there on a futon,” Heger recalls. “It was the way it should be—everybody was sleeping with real pillows and blankets on real furniture.”
As of last week, CAP had sheltered 194 children, and only one—the toddler in the pink shoes—had overstayed the 24-hour limit. Meanwhile at the command post, which for now remains the waiting area of last resort for adolescents, the headcount of waiting children is down by about 40%, to roughly 50 per week.
DCFS Assistant Regional Administrator Maricruz Trevino, who moved from the command post to run the CAP Center, says the new facility is a godsend, but the county’s work is far from finished. From the strained economy to an increased reluctance among foster parents to take babies, she says, a chronic shortage of willing foster homes continues to plague the county.
“This is wonderful,” she says, as she smiles down at the toddler in the pink shoes, who beams back, proffering a little toy bowl of pretend “soup.”
“But the resources in our community have to be gathered. We have to find a place for more of our kids.”
February 14, 2012
When it comes to overhauling the county’s long-troubled Department of Children and Family Services, Philip Browning isn’t messing around with any halfway measures.
“What I’d like is within two years to be the national leader, for L.A. County to be the model for other jurisdictions in the child welfare area,” said Browning, shortly after being named to the agency’s top job Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “That’s my goal.”
Browning has been at the helm of the agency for the past six months as interim director. He was originally recruited to come to Los Angeles County in 2001 from Washington, D.C., where he served as the district’s child support director. His first assignment here was to remake the District Attorney’s child support division, one of the most troubled in the nation. With Browning in charge, collections increased 36%, to more than $500 million, as customer service improved dramatically.
“We got more complaints about child support than any other agency in the county before he arrived,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky. “He turned it around and now we get virtually no complaints.”
Next up for Browning in 2007 was running the county’s sprawling and complex welfare agency, the Department of Public Social Services. Under his leadership, the department not only kept up with a mushrooming caseload but also radically reduced its error rate in signing people up for food stamps.
“He is a turnaround artist. He’s proven his ability to take a troubled department and turn it around,” Yaroslavsky said, noting that Browning did not apply for the DCFS position but was sought out by the Board of Supervisors.
He hasn’t wasted any time in his new assignment, as he seeks to make over an agency plagued with a series of highly-publicized lapses in protecting vulnerable children under its care.
A dormant strategic plan has been reawakened, with thousands of the department’s 7,300 employees submitting suggestions for initiatives and action items. Browning expects many of them to volunteer to take on new duties as the plan turns into reality.
Meanwhile, monthly meetings with top managers have been shaken up in a big way, with statistics from each DCFS office beamed up onto two huge screens for all to see. It’s part of a “data dashboard’ approach that not only introduces some healthy peer pressure and accountability to the proceedings but also makes it easier for managers to exchange ideas for solving each other’s problems.
“It’s pretty interesting to see the discussion,” Browning says.
He’s also looking for ways to remake the department’s emergency response command post system, which struggles to place children, especially teens and infants, in safe situations after hours.
“They see so many kids late at night that are so difficult to place,” he says. While the overall issue is complex, some simple fixes might be possible—such as forming a foster parents’ association that could help identify families willing to take late-night placements, or providing diapers or extra money to families willing to take on the challenge of caring for an infant.
And he’s getting ready to reorganize. “I’m foreseeing some pretty significant changes,” he says.
When Browning came in as DCFS’ interim director in August, he was the department’s third interim director in nine months. The previous permanent chief, Trish Ploehn, departed amid an uproar over high-profile child deaths and questions about whether the department was being open with policy-makers and the public. Browning’s appointment to the $255,000-a-year post is effective Thursday, Feb. 16.
Browning has a master’s of social work degree, but acknowledges he doesn’t have a deep background in child welfare.
“I think my value is management,” he says. “I see myself as an implementation guy.”
He said that over the course of his career, a variety of assignments—from running a grocery store to managing units responsible for U.S. Navy reserve logistics—have given him the tools to get things done.
Even as he’s thinking big at DCFS, Browning is stressing a simple set of principles to his new workforce.
“Common sense, critical thinking and accountability: I think almost anything you do falls within those parameters,” Browning says. “I have to be accountable, and our staff has to be accountable.”
December 1, 2011
Throughout his 15 years, Mauricio hasn’t had much to celebrate, not with a turbulent family history that has led to a life of foster care and self-doubt. So when the call came, he couldn’t contain himself. “I was jumping up and down,” recalls the impish teenager.
Mauricio had been informed that he’d been picked to participate in an unprecedented summer experiment on the UCLA campus, one that aims to infuse ambition and confidence into a group of kids who rarely go to college mostly because there’s been no one to help them get there.
Mauricio says he packed his suitcase a full month before the start of the intensive, five-week program and arrived so early on the first day that the former sorority house where he and the others would be living was still empty. “I was just so proud,” he says.
In a sense, however, the occasion represented more of a start than a finish. The students will continue to meet monthly on the Westwood campus and, if sufficient funds can be raised, will return in subsequent summers, along with new crops of recruits that will swell the program’s ranks and someday, hopefully, turn them all into full-fledged college students.
On Friday, that pride was shared by plenty of others—but, most importantly, by the 24 inaugural graduates of the First Star UCLA Guardian Scholars Summer Academy, the first such academic program of its kind for foster kids and others under the jurisdiction of child welfare officials. The youngsters, all of whom will be entering 9th grade, were honored during a commencement ceremony highlighted by one girl’s rousing exclamation: “I’m a Bruin now!”
In a sense, however, the occasion represented more of a start than a finish. The students will continue to meet monthly on the Westwood campus and, if sufficient funds can be raised, will return in subsequent summers, along with new crops of recruits that will swell the program’s ranks and someday, hopefully, turn them all into full-fledged college students. (Click here for a video on the program produced by Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s web staff.)
The program’s supporters say they’re determined to shatter the shameful statistics surrounding foster children, huge numbers of whom end up homeless and incarcerated in the years after their 18th birthdays, when they “age out” of the system. Only a fraction of them—an estimated two percent—continue their educations beyond high school.
“You can argue that college is their best possible ladder to leave behind a bad childhood and make it into a happy adulthood and a productive one that will not be a burden on the state, that will be something of high accomplishment,” says media executive Peter Samuelson, a driving force behind the program through his non-profit group First Star, which joined forces with UCLA and the County of Los Angeles.
“There’s nothing the matter with these children. Not one of them,” he says. “All of these kids can go to college. The issue is that nobody ever told them they could. How dumb is that? Who’s failing here, the kids or the grownups?”
The Summer Academy was designed to jump-start the participants’ collegiate careers and expose them to the rigors and culture of university life at a crucial juncture, just as they’re entering high school.
Each earned four college credits through a challenging mix of classes tailored to their educational, psychological and recreational needs. Those included math, literacy, social media, tai chi, cooking and life skills, where they learned meditation and conflict resolution. In the evenings, they were visited by an impressive series of speakers, including National Hockey League great Luc Robitaille, whose Echoes of Hope charity targets the needs of at-risk Los Angeles foster youth.
And then there were the field trips to, among other places, Disneyland, Skid Row and celebrity Chef Mario Batali’s restaurant, Mozza, where one teenage girl sheepishly confessed to eating nine slices of the establishment’s famed pizza. (The Batali Foundation also contributed money to the Summer Academy, along with the Stuart Foundation, College Board, Sage Publications and Hasbro Children’s Foundation.)
“It scares you in the right way,” Tiffany, 14, says of the program’s morning-to-night regimen. “You know what you’re being pushed to do. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I want to go to college.’ But until you actually see college kids and what they do and their level of intelligence, it’s hard to say yes.”
Initially, 30 students were selected for the program. But six boys were sent home in the second week for bad behavior, a wrenching decision for all involved. Still, academy officials had no intention of joining the long line of adults who’ve abandoned or given up on such boundary-pushing kids, a reflection of the program’s commitment to—and understanding of—its charges.
Program leaders have remained in contact with the remorseful teens and have held out the promise that they can participate in the group’s monthly UCLA gatherings and, if all goes well at home and in school, they’ll be able to join next summer’s class of young scholars.
“They’ve been told, ‘You are fine young men.’ They’ve all been given hope and a shining pathway of behavior to get themselves back in,” says Samuelson, who raised $305,000 for the summer academy. “When we get these six young men back into the academy, they will count amongst our greatest successes.”
Day to day, the program is run by a seemingly unflappable educator and former vice principal of an elementary school in a tough New Jersey neighborhood. “I fell in love working with students who felt that nobody else cared about them,” says academy director Wally Kappeler, 37, the father of an eight-week-old son.
He says that, for him, the biggest surprise of the summer program was how quickly the kids were willing to open up, especially after an evening session when one of them broke the ice and shared the story of his mom’s death. “Here,” Kappeler says, “they have an opportunity to be heard.”
Kappeler says another boy, shy and self conscious about his weight, would mostly keep to himself like “an outcast” until he was given a special daily job of locking a rear door at their three-story Hilgard Avenue house after deliveries by the caterer.
“He felt so proud that this was his responsibility that he volunteered for all kinds of jobs,” Kappeler says. “He volunteered to take the trash out to the dumpster and wipe the tables and make Kool-Aid for the entire group. And it became contagious…It’s amazing the inspiration that he’s been to us, coming out of his shell and taking a leadership role without saying much of anything at all.”
Because of such breakthroughs and the upbeat bonding between the youngsters, it’s easy to forget the circumstances that brought them to UCLA—the abuse and neglect, the revolving placements in new homes and schools, the philosophies of life that have evolved from the sadness of their situations.
Listen, for example, to Eddie, a soft-spoken 15-year-old, who confides: “Too much happiness could actually hurt you. You just need the right amount because I don’t want to get hurt anymore. Right now I’m not really in the mood for situations like love and happiness. I really want to succeed in my life.” Eddie says he’s determined to be the first in his family to attend college.
Or hear what Thalia, 14, has to say as she speaks for the many who’ve been betrayed by parents. “Even if they’ve done something bad to you, they’re still your blood and they’re part of you and you love them no matter what. And you will always forgive them, even though you’re mad at them at the moment. But they’re always going to be in your heart.”
Kappeler says his heart aches when he hears the kids talk like this. “The emotional baggage they’re holding onto is the stuff that most adults would use as an excuse to give up on life.” Instead, Kappeler says the academy is teaching students to harness the power of their narratives through writing, video and social media so they can become more effective advocates for themselves.
“I want them to feel like they can make a difference in this world just by being who they are and getting their story out,” he says, noting that each was given a laptop and video flip-cam to keep.
To guide and inspire the participants along the way, the program was staffed by peer counselors and resident assistants who are UCLA students and, for the most part, former foster youths themselves.
One of was senior Julian Ramirez, 21. As a youngster in San Jose, he endured a home fraught with addiction and violence. “One day my dad would say, ‘Let’s go fishing.’ The next, he’d be beating us with the fishing poles.” Under a mop of dark hair, Ramirez says he’s still got a scar from a concrete slab his father smashed against his head. Child welfare authorities, he says, repeatedly removed him and his siblings from his parents.
In his senior year of high school, Ramirez says it was “do or die” and he began to excel, achieving a 4.0 and becoming the captain of the wrestling team. He went to a community college in Cupertino—despite several months of homelessness—and then transferred to UCLA, where he joined the UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars, a campus association of former foster youth. “What mattered to me most,” he says, “was that I wanted to stay on track with my peers. I didn’t want to be slower than them. And I wanted to prove to myself I was capable.”
He says he hopes that his empathy and success—and that of the other student staffers—proved useful to the young teenagers in the summer program.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he says. “I know how it is to be 14, angry and not have anyone to talk to.”
In fact, the young participants told UCLA researchers late last week that the student mentors were “really impactful for them,” especially in the way “they talked about their journey through foster care,” says Associate Professor Todd Franke of the School of Public Affairs/Social Welfare, who’s conducting a longitudinal study of the students’ progress.
Franke says that, although it’s too soon to say much definitively about the program, there are some encouraging signs, based on a comparison of initial interviews with the teens and another series conducted on the eve of their commencement.
From the beginning, Franke says, virtually all the students said they wanted to go to college. “But in the past five weeks, the vast majority now see it as a much more realistic goal. It moved them further down the continuum to think that this is a real possibility for them.” They got a sense of the workload, learned that they’d likely be eligible for financial aid and came to believe that they’d have a strong campus support group to help get them through the rough patches, according to Franke. “The process,” he says, “was demystified.”
On Friday, commencement day, an assortment of foster parents, legal guardians and relatives gathered around dozens of tables inside UCLA’s Tom Bradley International Hall. There, they heard speeches about the heart and hope of the young Summer Academy participants. Among the officials who addressed the teens and their caregivers was Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose office helped facilitate the program through the Department of Children and Family Services.
He told the teenagers that, on some level, he could identify with their struggles. He said his mother died when he was 10 and that his father worked in the evenings, which meant there was no one to help him with homework or keep an eye on him at night.
“The thing that you have that most college students don’t have is that by the time you get ready to come into college, you probably will have gone through the toughest part of your life,” said the supervisor, a UCLA alumnus. “And while you may not appreciate that, you should embrace that experience, treasure that experience, because it’s going to toughen you up. It’s going to make you tough enough to confront whatever comes along your way, when you’re in college and after that.”
After the speeches were done and the two-dozen scholars received their graduation certificates—along with a standing ovation—it was time for them to leave this place of grownup aspirations and youthful good times. There were lots of hugs and tears, even though they’ll all be together again on campus in a month.
“I feel proud but at the same time I feel sad,” explained Mauricio. “I feel like this is my house.”
Video and photos by Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s web staff.
October 26, 2011
More than a dozen years ago, California voters, by the slimmest of margins, passed a measure championed by actor/director Rob Reiner imposing a 50-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to infuse huge sums into programs aimed at lifting the lives of children 5 and under.
“This is a sweet victory,” Reiner elatedly proclaimed after a final tally of absentee ballots had given his Proposition 10 the edge. “It means so much for the young children of this state…”
But this week in Los Angeles, the mood was far more somber as the Board of Supervisors received a highly critical audit of how hundreds of millions of dollars of that money has been administered locally by an independent public agency called First 5 LA.
Although no malfeasance was uncovered, the board was so concerned about the findings that, by a 4-1 vote, it set in motion a plan to strip First 5 LA of its independence and turn it into a county agency, like the majority of its companion organizations across the state.
The audit, requested by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who’s currently serving as chairman of the First 5 LA commission, was performed by Harvey M. Rose Associates and bluntly details a series of risks that the firm says may be undermining the performance and integrity of First 5 LA. Among the findings:
- First 5 LA has been significantly under-spending its revenues, placing the organization “at risk of not fulfilling its mission and goals to the extent possible and consistent with the Board of Commissioners policy and program objectives.” With a fund balance of more than $800 million, the organization has spent comparatively less on its programs than California’s other First 5 groups.
- The First 5 commission receives such insufficient information from the organization’s staff that its ability to oversee spending, program activity and outcomes is compromised. “Most grant and contract awards, representing hundreds of millions of dollars of annual agency expenditures, are not submitted for approval or review.”
- In the last fiscal year, the agency awarded more than $200 million in contracts, but failed to report them all to the First 5 commissioners, which “raises the risk of agreements being in place for inappropriate purposes or with unqualified vendors or grantees.” In fact, the commission approved only 28% of First 5 LA contract awards. In many cases, contracts were awarded without competitive bidding—and without notifying the commission. Auditors could not determine how some contracts were awarded because documentation was not properly retained.
- The staffing of First 5 LA is high compared to other First 5 agencies and is “not configured to best enable development and administration of new programs and initiatives,” thus contributing to the under-spending problem and delays in launching health, safety and educational programs for the county’s children.
- During the past four fiscal years, First 5 LA has had an annual staff turnover rate ranging from 8 to 19 percent a year, generally higher than other First 5 organizations surveyed by the auditors. This, along with the absence of a commission-approved compensation policy, “raises the risk of First 5 LA not being able to attract and retrain qualified, high-performing employees.”
After the audit findings were presented during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky offered a particularly blunt assessment.
“The lack of transparency, the lack of accountability, the lack of competition in proposals, the lack of information sharing between the staff and the commission itself, any one of these things would be a bell and whistle. And all of them together is a siren,” said Yaroslavsky, who praised Antonovich for initiating the audit process.
No representatives from First 5 LA testified during Tuesday’s session. But the organization’s chief executive officer, Evelyn V. Martinez, later released a statement noting that, since 1998, First 5 LA has undergone annual independent audits of its financial statements and controls “and at no time have these audits resulted in any material findings.”
First 5 LA, she said, “takes its fiduciary responsibilities seriously and has been a responsible caretaker of the public funds entrusted to it.” While acknowledging the Board of Supervisors’ authority to exert greater control over the organization, Martinez said that “I hope we can continue to maintain our focus on improving the lives of our youngest children in Los Angeles County.”
Among chief executives of First 5 commissions in California’s 58 counties, Martinez’ annual compensation of nearly $250,000 in 2009-2010 topped the list. That included a $10,000 performance bonus.
Supervisor Gloria Molina cast the sole vote against the motion authored by Antonovich and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, which directs the county counsel and chief executive officer to prepare a proposed ordinance establishing First 5 LA as a county agency and report back within 30 days.
“I don’t see where one dollar was stolen, one dollar was misappropriated, one dollar was mishandled,” said Molina, who was chair of the First 5 LA commission during some of the audited period. (That position is held by the sitting chairman of the Board of Supervisors, a position that rotates annually. Each supervisor also appoints a member to the commission.)
Molina added: “I think it’s a shame that we are moving so drastically to take over this agency.”
The audit process began earlier this year when the governor proposed diverting half of the current and future Proposition 10 tobacco-tax money from the county commissions established to administer it. For First 5 LA, according to the Antonovich/Ridley-Thomas motion, this would divert about $450 million from its current reserves and $50 million annually in the future.
The audit, conducted in two phases, initially was intended to identify First 5 LA’s reserves and ensure the most efficient use of future allocations. But, in the end, serious issues were uncovered that led to Tuesday’s vote.
The First 5 commissions have sued the state to block diversion of funds. The case is pending.