May 4, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Not long ago, I posted here and here and here about the system-wide dysfunction in the child welfare organizations in California. The problems generally amount to caseworkers either ignoring children obviously at risk of injury or overspending resources on parents who are fit and loving. But the situation is so bad that at least one state lawmaker, Assembleyman Tim Donnelly, has said he’d scrap the whole system and start over if he could. Then the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection in Los Angeles County declared a state of emergency in child protection.
This article tells us the problems are worse than even Donnelly or the Commission thought (Los Angeles Daily News, 5/1/14).
It seems that, when child support is paid on behalf of a child in foster care, it first goes to whatever child protective agency put him/her there. CPS pays itself for expenses related to the child’s being in foster care and puts the rest aside to earn interest. The theory is that, once the child ages out of the system at age 18, any money left in the account, plus interest, will be paid to him/her.
But we’re not surprised to learn that, in Los Angeles County at least, that system didn’t work very well. It seems that, instead of paying the money to the kids for whom it was paid by their parents in the first place, the Department of Children and Family Services just kept it. They started doing so a long time ago and have continued up to the present day despite warnings to do their statutory duty and promising to comply.
In a report to the county Board of Supervisors, Acting Auditor-Controller John Naimo said DCFS was first notified about the discrepancy back in 2002 but failed to correct it.
“DCFS needs to ensure Child Support Trust Fund monies are returned to former foster care children,” he wrote.
DCFS Director Philip Browning said in a letter that the department “generally agrees” with the recommendations and has taken “appropriate corrective actions.”
But of course they’d done no such thing. Twelve years later, they’re still holding the money and still promising to do better.
The audit discovered $1 million of the child support payments that went into the trust fund never reached their intended beneficiaries — 430 now-former foster kids. Some have been owed money since 1998.
“We’re working with the state and county’s child support agencies to review those cases and, upon identifying the children, reach out to them and disburse the money,” DCFS finance manager Rogelio Tapia said in an interview.
In addition to that $1 million, there is also $800,000 in interest earned on funds provided by the Social Security Administration that should have been provided to foster kids but was not.
“We are in the process of tabulating each and every child’s balance and interest,” Tapia said. “We’ll give it to the SSA and they’ll be the ones to send it to the children.”
He said the SSA should have the money by next month.
Hmm. That’s $800,000 interest on $1,000,000 or an 80% rate. That money’s been sitting in that account for a long time.
Of course it’s the kids, many of them well into their adult years by now, who’ve gone without. But let’s not forget the taxpayers of Los Angeles County who pick up the bill for the interest that’s compounded every year past each child’s 18th birthday. Bureaucratic incompetence costs everyone.
And that’s not all. The Department also thoughtfully decided to keep another $7.2 million in another account. Back in 2005, the DCFS foresaw a shortfall in what’s called the Wraparound Program, so it beefed up funding.
DCFS is supposed to withdraw from the trust fund to pay for contracts with private, community-based agencies that operate the Wraparound Program.
These agencies provide housing, therapy, educational assistance and other services that allow foster kids to stay at the home of a relative, instead of foster care or group homes.
But the shortfall never happened, so again, rather than disbursing the money, say, for increased efforts to place kids with relatives instead of strangers, DCFS kept the money. It still has it and was intending on keeping it, I suppose forever, until the auditor told them they had to spend it on kids.
Tapia said DCFS has been withdrawing money from the trust fund for wraparound services over the years, but the costs were lower than expected. He said the department did not spend the surplus to maintain a buffer.
“We wanted to make sure a pot of money stayed in there, in case there’s a need above and beyond what we expected,” he said. “The department made a conscious effort to have a safeguard to ensure that our children are going to get the services they need.”
The audit, however, said DCFS should come up with a “proper course of action” for that balance. DCFS has agreed to comply.
A “proper course of action” would be to redouble efforts to keep kids in kinship care instead of consigning them to families they don’t know. Kinship care is generally better for kids than foster care, so, since there’s all that money just sitting there, I think the course would be clear: recruit and train more grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, etc. so that kids can live with them.
But that’s just me. What do I know? Hey, if it had been up to me, I would probably have sent the child support money to the kids long ago and used the $7.2 million to enhance kinship care. I guess that’s why I don’t qualify to work for DCFS.
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