Top Story: Social Services
May 29, 2013
Edward Murillo knows what it’s like to need a refuge.
As a gay teenager growing up in South Lake Tahoe, he says, he was kicked out of the house a dozen times. “The first time, I slept out in the woods,” he recalls.
Now 20, and living with an aunt and uncle in Sun Valley, he’s a student at Pierce College and a leader of its Gay-Straight Alliance club.
And this week, he was definitely out of the woods, sitting in a bright and freshly painted new drop-in center for at-risk, foster, homeless and LGBT young people aged 14 to 21. The center, which formally opens Friday, is the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.
“I feel like if there was a center like this in Lake Tahoe, it would have been amazing. It would have made me feel a lot better,” Murillo says.
Charles Robbins, vice president of communications and development for The Village Family Services, which has created the center on the site of a former orthopedic surgeon’s office in North Hollywood, says it will serve a growing population with urgent and specific needs.
“We are going to be a heavily-used site,” he predicts, noting a “migration” of homeless youth to the Valley as crackdowns intensify in Hollywood. “Lots of these kids are coming into North Hollywood.”
He says that many of the young people end up “couch-surfing with friends,” while others frequent local libraries, public transit stations and parks.
Some offerings at the new center are geared to addressing the needs of homeless kids—showers, a washer-dryer, a few basic clothing supplies. Others, like an outdoor patio, foosball table, free Wi-Fi and “cyber lounge” with computers, along with a steady supply of healthy breakfasts and snacks, seem likely to be hits with all the young patrons, regardless of their housing status.
Beyond the amenities, planned activities include art, fitness, vocational and life-skills classes, counseling, peer and support groups and referrals to an array of services including housing and substance abuse recovery.
The center is being started with funding from 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, with much of the annual operating expenses expected to come from private donors. It is on the first floor of the Valley Community Clinic, 6801 Coldwater Canyon Avenue in North Hollywood. That location, right downstairs from the facility’s Teen Clinic, offers a powerful combination of vital services under one roof.
“The Teen Clinic’s services are free, which is amazing,” says Karina Perez, 18, the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Pierce College and a friend of Murillo, who is the group’s public affairs officer. Onsite mental health counseling will also be available at the new drop-in center. “If you’re having anxiety or feeling depressed, they can help,” she points out.
Perez lives in North Hollywood, but others are expected to come from come across the sprawling Valley to find fellowship and support at the drop-in center.
“We come all the way down from Lancaster to support something like this,” says Mario Vasquez, 18. “Even youth from our area can come down and feel safe and respected in an environment where everyone is working together.”
Vasquez, Perez and Anthony Barros, 17, are all youth advocates with Project Q, which provides supportive services for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) young people at The Village Family Services. When the organization started developing plans for the drop-in center, the students played a role in shaping its identity, including helping to paint some of the colorful canvases that now adorn the walls.
“When we first got news that we got funding for the drop-in center, I was overwhelmingly excited,” Barros says. “Finally, a safe space where LGBTQ and straight allied people can come together in the San Fernando Valley. I’m really looking at this as a place where we can all feel comfortable and supported, a place where we can continue our leadership and develop ourselves as people and citizens.”
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.
May 1, 2013
Responding to a years-long string of allegations of impropriety within a foster family agency under contract to Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors this week moved to tighten oversight of such agencies and to fix communications breakdowns involving departments responsible for auditing them.
The board voted unanimously to approve a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas calling on the Department of Children and Family Services to develop a plan to conduct annual audits of programs at the approximately 129 foster family agencies with county contracts. The board also approved an amendment by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky directing the department to include a staffing component it had previously proposed, for six or seven new employees to enable DCFS to undertake a more aggressive oversight approach.
Meanwhile, the county department of the Auditor-Controller, charged with conducting separate financial audits of the foster family agencies, came in for some criticism at the board’s meeting on Tuesday for its handling of a review of Teens Happy Home, the subject of a recent Los Angeles Times article that disclosed allegations of long-running financial irregularities at the agency.
Yaroslavsky said the department, which completed an audit of Teens Happy Home in 2003 and is currently finishing up a second audit started in 2010, failed to brief board staff when it discovered allegations of misappropriation of public funds by the agency.
“Where there are problem agencies out there…we’d like to know so that we don’t step in a pile of dung inadvertently,” Yaroslavsky said. “This is troubling to me.”
Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe, who said the Teens Happy Home audit is nearly complete, acknowledged the problem: “We fell short on this one, I’ll admit to that. We did not do a very good job. And I think part of the reason is we wanted to keep the 20 allegations under wraps.”
The Times reported that Teens Happy Home, a private agency that places children in foster and group homes, has continued to receive county contracts even as “questionable financial practices proliferated in recent years” and children it placed in foster homes “suffered abuse and neglect repeatedly.”
Supervisors expressed concern that DCFS and the Auditor-Controller are not communicating well enough with each other—especially when issues of child welfare are concerned.
“There are things that the Auditor-Controller knows that the Department of Children and Family Services does not know and vice versa,” Ridley-Thomas said. “And because of the lack of communication and coordination, we are not holding the entities appropriately accountable.”
Added Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich: “The children can’t afford delays in having these corrections implemented…If a house is on fire, you can’t take two years to study it and make a recommendation in three years on how to put out the fire…This is a life-and-death issue at times that has to be resolved immediately.”
The supervisors directed staff to come back with an oversight plan in 30 days. Philip Browning, the head of DCFS, said his department is committed to making the necessary changes.
“We put safety as a priority for the children in these foster homes,” Browning said in a statement after the supervisors’ meeting. “We will be working more closely with the Auditor-Controller to ensure coordination of our efforts to improve safety of children at the direction of the board.”
January 31, 2013
Even as a little girl, Ruth Wong aspired to the Right Stuff.
“I knew at 8 years old that I wanted to be a nurse, and I was probably 12 when I started thinking about the military,” she remembers.
By the age of 20, she was in the U.S. Air Force, studying to become a flight nurse. By 40, she was in the Persian Gulf, commanding 50 medical personnel, sleeping in a chemical suit and packing a 9-millimeter sidearm.
By the time she retired from the service in 2001 and went to work for Los Angeles County, she was a Brigadier General.
So last week, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat, Wong—who last month became the first woman to head the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs—cheered it as a step in the right direction for the institution that had helped her realize her heart’s desires.
“They’ll have to be physically able, emotionally strong, and be able to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts,” she says. “But this is going to afford an opportunity for women to advance in career fields they may have dreamed about for a very long time.”
Wong, who moved to the military and veterans affairs department in August after nearly a decade as executive director of the county’s Quality and Productivity Commission, says she sometimes thinks that her whole life has been leading her toward her current job.
“When I came here, I was told it would be a temporary assignment,” says Wong, who became acting director after the retirement of Col. Joseph N. Smith in December. “But after a couple of months, I began to think, ‘This is where I belong.’”
The department, which helps L.A. County veterans access housing, education, mental health care and other services, offers a front-line view of the military’s evolution and of veterans’ evolving needs. A 2010 study by the Economic Round Table counted 328,000 veterans in Los Angeles County, including some 36,000 who had served since 9/11. That total, Wong says, has since grown to an estimated 400,000, and is projected to grow further by 2017 as forces in Afghanistan and Iraq complete planned drawdowns.
“About a third of the young people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from post-traumatic stress or some other mental health issue,” Wong says. “Those who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress are having to adapt to a new environment.”
And, Wong says, the new veterans are twice as likely to be female; 13% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are women, compared to 6% of veterans overall, according to the Economic Round Table. The ban on women in combat notwithstanding, she says, the female veterans now have seen more action than at any time in U.S. history, and are coming home with not only that trauma, but with a whole set of needs specific to women.
“Some are coming back as primary caretakers to families and children, or maybe to a husband they have to bond with again,” she says. “We are seeing women who, unfortunately, are getting divorced, with young children, and have no job and don’t know where to go.”
Wong understands these struggles, both as a married woman and as a veteran who has watched the military evolve since the early 1970s. When she WAS commissioned as an Air Force officer, fresh out of nursing school in Chicago, the Vietnam War and the draft were winding down and the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. Women made up less than 2% of the armed forces and were barred from two-thirds of the military job specialties.
“I wasn’t a feminist,” she says, recalling that her main motivation had been to travel without having to postpone her career in nursing. In fact, when her World War II-veteran father feared aloud for her safety, “my response was, ‘I’m going to be a nurse in a hospital—I probably won’t even carry a gun.’”
She met her husband, a Pasadena physician, while they were both stationed at a New Mexico air base. She served at Point Hueneme while he built a Southern California practice. Then, in 1991, war struck. Wong was promoted to flight commander of Aeromedical Evacuation Operations at the Sharjah Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. Though Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield never brought her directly into combat, she says, she was responsible for scores of subordinates and there were frequent threats of chemical attack from SCUD missiles.
The experience shaped her in ways she recognizes in the veterans she serves now.
“I was stronger when I came back,” she says. “Just being in a country that was so different, in a wartime scenario, working with people I’d never worked with before—just being able to survive all that gave me a feeling of, ‘I can do almost anything. I’m a little bit more of a superwoman than I thought I was.”
It also sensitized her to veterans’ struggles. “They’ve faced so many things that others haven’t had to experience or face,” she says. “Things in their hometowns are different. They’re different. When I came back from the Persian Gulf, I was different.”
And, she says, so were her loved ones. “My husband is a jovial person, and when I came back, people told me over and over, ‘Your husband didn’t smile the whole time you were gone.’”
The 6-month deployment moved Wong up the ladder; her final decade in the military was spent directing and administering nursing services for the Air Force at Andrews AFB and in the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C.
She retired just before 9/11 and returned fulltime to Pasadena, where she and her husband had based their temporarily bicoastal marriage. Then the military changed her life again.
This time, it was a phone call from an old Air Force buddy, wondering if she would be interested in an opening at Los Angeles County, where the friend now worked. Soon, Wong, who had spent six years consulting with nurses to make Air Force field units more efficient, was evaluating efficiency at the county Department of Mental Health.
That gig led to the job as executive director at the Quality and Productivity Commission, and, in turn, to her current job—proving, she says, that with or without combat experience, military service can be valuable in the civilian workplace.
As can Air Force buddies. “As they say, 66% percent of all jobs are gotten through networking,” she says with a laugh.
November 29, 2012
Architect Michael Maltzan builds museums and mansions. His latest commissions include an addition to the American ambassador’s residence in Paris, a new pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, and an arts center for Rice University. Architectural Digest hails his “visionary approach” and the New York Times has dubbed him “a darling of wealthy art world patrons.”
So what’s an acclaimed architect like Maltzan doing in a place like L.A.’s Skid Row?
You’d be amazed.
Maltzan, whose firm is based in Silver Lake, is helping to rewrite the playbook on designing housing for the homeless in Los Angeles. Over the past five years, his two projects for the non-profit Skid Row Housing Trust—the Rainbow Apartments and the New Carver Apartments, next to the 10 Freeway at Hope Street—have pushed the envelope of what it means to create shelter while fostering a healing sense of community.
Now he’s at it again, venturing for the first time into a project that will graft pre-fabricated housing units onto an existing, multi-use single-story building at 6th Street and Maple Avenue. A new “structural tray” atop the original building will support the network of 100-plus studio apartments being trucked in from a factory in Idaho, while also forming a kind of outdoor mezzanine with community gardens, jogging track, basketball court, yoga platform and shared kitchen, laundry and computer room spaces. Supportive services, including a ground-floor medical clinic, will serve not just the residents of the new Star Apartments, but also people who live in the surrounding community.
The first units won’t be installed until December and the building isn’t set to open until next spring or early summer, but already Maltzan’s design is being lauded for its “elegant composition of prefabricated blocks.”
The Star project represents “a big innovation,” says Mike Alvidrez, the Housing Trust’s executive director. He praises Maltzan for bringing “a very fresh, innovative way of thinking about buildings…in particular when it comes to how design can be influential in terms of helping people recover from homelessness.”
Creating social, communal interactions is a big part of the Star’s design. The homeless, Maltzan says, “live on the street all the time. We think that they must be very well adjusted to living in public, but the reality is, the only way a human being is able to survive in that kind of situation without any private life at all is to create that private life within themselves, and start to create a real shell around themselves and disconnect from culture and community around them.”
So unlike the old transient hotel experience, where “you felt like you were under surveillance” when you entered the lobby and then “disappeared into your room and were never seen until you came back out,” the Star is designed so residents will step onto a walkway or balcony when they leave their units.
“You are moving through a more social situation,” Maltzan says.
He’s also excited about his first foray into pre-fabrication. Using pre-fab methods to build multi-family housing is more economical, efficient and environmentally-friendly than traditional construction methods—and, contrary to old stereotypes, offers sturdier, easier-to-maintain living spaces, he says.
“It allows us to reach a higher level of quality for the same cost,” he says. “When I say higher level of quality, it’s not making it fancier. It’s making it better, more durable, and nicer to use when you’re in the unit.”
And looks matter—whether you’re building a 28,000-square-foot residence for a mogul like Michael Ovitz or a 340-square-foot refuge for someone used to sleeping on the street.
“A big part of our goal,” Maltzan says, “is to say that architecture and design and beauty are something that should be accessible to the full range of the population of Los Angeles County.”
Not everybody saw it that way, at least initially. After the opening of his first Skid Row Housing Trust project, the Rainbow, some people asked him:
“Why are you making these buildings look so good? Why are you making them so identifiable? That must be more expensive. Why aren’t you just housing these people?”
Maltzan disagrees—not just on the expense question but on the notion that good design is just for the privileged. And he’s heard the same thing from people who live in his buildings, including the Rainbow.
“I’ve been to that building many, many, many times. I’ve been there when people knew I was the architect and I’ve been there when people didn’t know I was the architect. And the thing I get again and again and again from that community is, ‘We live in a place that looks like something, as opposed to a place that looks like nothing.’ ”
The new approach to building for the homeless is part of an overall shift that emphasizes the value of creating “permanent supportive housing,” which provides not just a roof overhead but surrounds residents with vitally-needed medical, mental health and other services. Project 50, which targeted some of the most entrenched residents on Skid Row for such housing, is a widely-cited success story, praised for transforming lives and saving money.
The Star Apartments, the first pre-fab homeless housing complex in L.A., is expected to embody those principles—and perhaps provide a template for the future.
“I think we could use many, many more projects like this,” says Alvidrez, of the Skid Row Housing Trust.
For his part, Maltzan thinks important elements in the Star Apartments could work all over Los Angeles—and not just for a homeless clientele.
“I can’t wait to do another project like that,” he says.
Maltzan, 53, who grew up in Levittown, N.Y. and was educated at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Harvard, moved to Los Angeles in 1988. He and his wife, Amy Murphy, an architecture professor at USC now pursuing a PhD in the university’s School of Cinematic Arts, now live with their two children in Pasadena.
He considers L.A. “the most compelling laboratory for thinking about the future of cities and the future of architecture in relationship to those cities.”
And he thinks he sees a glimpse of the future in the homeless housing efforts now afoot.
“As a citizen in the community, it makes me feel optimistic that you can effect change in a positive way in what most people have said is an intractable dynamic, that homelessness just can’t be changed, that that community is lost,” he says. “That is not the case. You can effect real change.”
There’s also a sense of vindication for his profession as a whole.
“One of architecture’s responsibilities is to use its capacity to continue to move cities and communities forward. And that includes making very pragmatic and functional buildings, cost-effective buildings, but also buildings that look like something, that stand for something, that aren’t shy in creating iconic structures that are for the culture as a whole,” he says.
“It’s extremely important for us to make the very best for the wealthiest segments of our community as well as for the less privileged in our communities. And it’s only when we work in all of those segments that you have any hope of creating a viable, sustainable, progressive metropolis.”
November 20, 2012
Maybe, as the ‘80s bestseller says, everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten—but for the Athanas and Goldman families, it turned out that wasn’t nearly early enough.
The San Fernando Valley couples, close friends since their children were in preschool together, wanted to find a way for even the youngest members of their families to taste the joy of generosity.
“We’re both civic-minded families, and we wanted to involve our kids in giving back,” says Erika Athanas. But there was a problem: most of the volunteer opportunities they encountered were geared to high school students and adults. Even the best-intentioned little kids weren’t a good fit for dishing out dinner at a homeless shelter, for instance.
So an idea was born and, this being 2009, that idea came with a Facebook page. The goal, initially, was just to reach out and see if there were other people searching for child-friendly volunteering events and causes that make it possible for families to unplug and spend time together while making the world—or at least a small corner of it—a better place.
The answer was a resounding yes. And today, the nonprofit organization the families created, 4GOOD, has grown into a social networking success story and home-crafted online resource center. Athanas, who co-founded the group with her husband, Peter, and their friends Katie and Jeff Goldman, estimates there are now 2,500 “4Gooders” involved with the organization.
“I cannot tell you how many people have reached out to us to say, ‘Why don’t organizations include children? Why is it so hard to find them?’ ” Athanas says.
Responding to the demand, 4GOOD’s first annual “Family Day” earlier this year attracted hundreds of participants (look for the next one on April 7, 2013.) Kids got a hands-on taste of volunteering by making placemats and flower pots for seniors who receive Meals on Wheels and by crafting cards for military service members as part of Operation Gratitude.
The calendar on the 4GOOD website links to dozens of activities, ranging from helping out at the Baby2Baby Warehouse distributing “gently used” gear to needy families to cleaning cages and handing out hay to rescued bunnies at a shelter. This month, 4GOOD is asking its members to take part in a pre-Thanksgiving food drive sponsored by Jewish Family Service’s SOVA program. And on December 2, they’re joining forces with the group Friends & Helpers on an Adopt-a-Family/gift wrapping event in Tarzana.
Last year, Scholastic’s Parent & Child magazine recognized the group’s work by selecting the Athanases as its Family of the Year.
That brought a cover photo shoot, an appearance with Hollywood stars William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, and even an online storybook populated with illustrated versions of Erika, who works part-time in product development, Peter, a business consultant, and their sons: Izak, now 12, and Eli, who’s about to turn 8.
Along the way, 4GOOD hasn’t just made a difference in the lives of others. It’s also been a transformative force for the founders’ own families.
“I really feel my kids will be better human beings and better adults because I’m showing them the way,” says Athanas, who “never volunteered in my life until I was in my 30s” but wanted things to be different for her children.
“A lot of these things that we suggest to do are fun. We want them to have fun and to enjoy it,” she says. “My own kids drag their feet sometimes, of course. That’s the nature of being a kid. But at the end of every single thing, they end up saying ‘You were right, Mom. That was really incredible.’ ”
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 30, 2012
There are an estimated 3,000 children—5 years old and younger—who endure lives of homelessness every day in Los Angeles County. By all measures, they face a bleak future. According to studies, homeless youngsters are 12 times more likely to end up in foster care, and they’re twice as likely to suffer learning disabilities. By the age of 12, large numbers of them will have witnessed a violent event.
This week, the First 5 LA commission began developing the framework for an unprecedented “fast-track” effort to end this tragic cycle by committing $25 million to place families of these vulnerable youngsters in permanent supportive housing.
“There is a tremendous social cost for nearly 3,000 of our youngest children to be left without a safe, stable home every night,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who earlier this year became First 5 LA’s chairman. “With this program, we are focusing for the first time on helping families with children prenatal to age 5 who are struggling with homelessness daily and nightly in Los Angeles County.”
The multimillion dollar effort was initiated in July through a Yaroslavsky motion after First 5 LA released a study of the problem. It’s modeled after programs that have proven highly effective in restoring the lives of chronically homeless adults in Los Angeles and across the nation. The idea is to give a person a permanent home while surrounding him or her with a variety of services, including mental health and medical services.
A Los Angeles County analysis of the pioneering Project 50 on Skid Row showed that not only were participants benefiting, but the public was saving money on emergency rooms, jails and other costs associated with long-term homelessness. The Project 50 model, also championed by Yaroslavsky, is now being replicated throughout the region and by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The $25 million committed by First 5 LA to house homeless children is part of a broader initiative to accelerate the expenditure of $400 million for various services aimed at the county’s babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Last year, a toughly-worded audit found, among other things, that the agency had been sitting on a surplus of nearly $800 million, prompting a change of leadership. First 5 LA and similar agencies throughout California are funded by a voter-approved 50-cent tax on tobacco products sold in the state.
At its meeting this week, the commission said it would begin soliciting applications for the funds in mid-September and start awarding the money in December.
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.”