LOS ANGELES (AP) – California officials are threatening to fine Los Angeles County as it struggles with a critical shortage of foster care that has packed children into holding rooms.
Between May 28 and July 5, nearly 600 children were diverted to holding rooms as social workers struggled to find them foster beds. More than 100 were there for more than the state limit of 24 hours and dozens spent several nights in the centers, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing information obtained under the California Public Records Act.
By comparison, only one child was held longer than 24 hours last August.
California regulators have given the county until Wednesday to fix the problem or face possible daily fines.
The number of foster parents has declined sharply over the last decade. The county had 7,800 children in 6,380 foster homes in 2007 while there now are 6,300 in 3,440 homes.
When foster beds cannot immediately be found, children younger than 12 typically stay at a holding center at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Its cribs and cots have accommodated as many as 29 children in a night.
The Department of Children and Family Services recently issued an emergency plea for community volunteers to help feed children and change diapers.
Older children typically go to a conference room in a high-rise building, and some have had to sleep on the floor, social workers who have worked at the facility told the Times.
Several problems have exacerbated the bed shortage. The county’s database of foster homes is only updated once a month and it lists only the licensed capacity of a home – not the actual number of beds a foster parent is willing to fill.
Additionally, the state’s reimbursement to foster families to care for very young children is far lower than the actual costs, according to a recent study by Children’s Rights, a foster care advocacy group.
The rate for children under age 4 recently was boosted to about $680 a month but that still is hundreds of dollars below the estimated costs.
“We need more homes and we need to pay them more,” said Philip Browning, director of the child welfare department. “But the rates are set by the state, not the county, and that constrains us.”
The county is contracting with private, nonprofit foster care agencies to accept children around the clock and it also has agreed to pay the county’s probation department to speed up criminal background checks on relatives willing to take kids removed from homes, Brown said.