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LA County's most vulnerable foster children are having trouble finding homes

There's a severe lack of homes for L.A. County's most vulnerable foster children. And each day the county fails to find a home for them is another day it violates a federal court order.

That’s according to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which is desperately trying to find homes for kids with mental health needs, who have been traumatized by family violence, and have been bumped around the foster care system. This group is at particularly high risk of dropping out of school, abusing drugs, and incarceration.

Nearly 18,000 children are currently in foster care in Los Angeles County. Of those, DCFS has identified about 300 who have severe mental health and behavioral problems — children who qualify for a relatively new program known as “therapeutic foster care.” In 2008, the county started the program in response to a federal court order to move kids with mental health problems – but not so severe that they need hospitalization – out of institutional-style group homes and into family homes.

The problem is there aren’t enough foster parents willing to participate in the program. At this point, there is room for 102 children in the system. The need has grown so dire that six family foster care agencies — who usually compete for parents — have banded together in a recruitment campaign to find homes for these children with special needs.

The program has been successful elsewhere

Tamar Chafets, who works in the film industry, is one of the fruits of this recent effort.

On a recent Wednesday night, Chafets sat in a parenting class in L.A.'s Mid-City neighborhood. She was at the office of Aviva, a foster care agency participating in the recruitment effort.

The women in the class had some unusual questions, like this one from Chafets: “What do you do if your foster child is threatening to jump off the roof?”

The course is designed not to sugarcoat the task of taking in one of the special needs children.

For Chafets, that means fostering — and potentially one day adopting — an 11-year-old boy who she’s known for a long time.

“I met him when he was 3, he was homeless, and he’s been in and out of seven foster care placements,” Chafets said. “It’s come to a head where he’s having a lot of behavioral and emotional issues. I feel like this is the point I have to step in and I don’t want to say, ‘save’ him, but I really need to help him breathe easier.”

Chafets is already a foster parent. She’s gone through the required 21 hours of training, background checks, and home inspections. She has already adopted one child. Charlotte, now 2, entered Chafets’ life when she was just 10 days old and still withdrawing from being heroin exposed to heroin in the utero.

"The first eight months were tough, but it's the best thing I've ever done," Chafets said.

But the 11-year-old boy has been identified as requiring “therapeutic foster care." In order for him to live in her home, Chafets has to complete an additional 60 hours of training. She’ll get extra resources as well: a support group and access to a 24-hour help line. The boy will get 80 hours of services each month, including a tutor, psychological treatment and a social worker.

“This is a great program and the kids do really well,” said Mary Nichols, who runs the county’s therapeutic foster care program at the DCFS.

The vast majority of kids who have gone through the program, which has been in place for about six years, have either reunited with their biological families or been adopted, Nichols said.

“Our outcomes are pretty spectacular,” Nichols said.

The program has also had success in other states like North Carolina and Virginia. But there are problems.

“The burnout rate is pretty phenomenal,” Nichols said. The county can recruit families, but they’re having trouble keeping them.

As an added incentive, the county recently approved a program that provides 10 days off for therapeutic foster parents — a sort of vacation. The county also recently raised the monthly allowance for therapeutic foster homes to $2,100.

The urgency comes largely from the fact that kids are not where they should be, said Greg Srolestar of the Child Welfare Initiative, which is helping organize the recruitment effort among foster family agencies.

"The standard is the kids end up in group homes,” Srolestar said. “And in group homes they have more intensive services, but best practices in child welfare is to put kids in the least restrictive setting possible.”

The number of children in group homes has gone down in L.A. County, but many children who could benefit from living with a family are still ending up in an institutional setting, Nichols said.

Group homes also tend to be more expensive — though therapeutic foster care is not cheap either. In L.A. County, each therapeutic foster bed can cost the county up to $87,644 annually, including the monthly allowance to foster families and all the mental health and other services provided to the child. Nichols said the price tag is generally lower and much of that money comes into DCFS and the Department of Mental Health from federal and state sources.

In contrast, the average child in foster care (who does not require extra mental health services) costs the county anywhere from $20,568 to $23,724.

However, group homes that have children with higher needs (where the vast majority of children in group homes are housed — some of them with severe mental health issues) are the most expensive option, ranging from $88,728 to $116,028 annually per child.

L.A. County is under a federal court order to find 300 therapeutic foster beds — and has been for years.

In 2003, L.A. County settled a federal class action lawsuit by agreeing to beef up mental health services for foster youth. The county also promised to transition from depending on group homes for mentally ill children to finding family settings for such kids.

Eventually, the county resolved to adopt a therapeutic foster care model, assuring the court it would find 300 such beds in L.A. County. It has yet to reach that goal.

The county again promised to do so by the end of 2014 in its annual report.

Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group in Montgomery, Alabama, also serves on the panel that monitors the settlement L.A. County agreed to in federal court.

He’s not optimistic that the county will meet its 300-bed goal this year, but he’s happy to see more efforts to recruit families. All in all, the therapeutic foster care program is a smaller piece of a large, incomplete overhaul of mental health services for foster children in Los Angeles County.

Related: Report: LA County must reform troubled DCFS; officials say the whole system needs reform (update)

“They aren’t yet sufficient,” Vincent said. “While there has been a good start in a number of areas with the expansion of intensive home based mental health services, there are still a fair number of kids who need those kinds of supports who are not getting them because the service array has not grown to the point where I think we all agree it needs to be.”

The size of Los Angeles County and the severe needs of the population make programs like therapeutic foster care hard to implement, Vincent said. Meanwhile, kids with serious needs are having a tough time.

“The outcomes for kids who need mental health services are uniformly lower or poorer than kids without mental health services,” Vincent said. “Taking longer to get to achieve permanency. The frequency of moves. The frequency with which kids reenter care after reunification efforts. They are placed in adoption less frequently, and they’re more likely to be placed in restrictive placements.”

L.A. County, meanwhile, is depending on people like Chafets to step up. She has almost completed her training to become a therapeutic foster care parent.

“These are children that are being left out of society,” Chafets said. “People are scared and not taking them in and not helping them. This is a huge, huge need. This is, to me, a calling, an obligation.”

The county needs about 140 more foster parents like Chafets to join the program to meet the goal of providing homes to all of the most vulnerable children in the system.