This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to the Catholic Church's response to continuing issues involving priests sexually abusing children.

PD Editorial: Fixing a broken foster care system

The story of Vicki Vanclief should be enough to raise alarms about California's system for caring for many of its 59,000 foster children — a system that's broken.

Vicki was a toddler when her mother, a crack addict and prostitute, ended up in a board and care facility for the mentally ill. Through a nonprofit social services agency, the child was placed with a foster mother, Kiana Barker of South Los Angeles who had experience carrying for children. The kind of experience she had, however, should have raised more red flags than it did.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Barker, a convicted thief, was living with a boyfriend who was a convicted robber. Records showed at least three documented complaints had been lodged against Barker through the county's child abuse hotline. One was for a case of severe neglect. Nonetheless, the private agency, United Care, placed the child with Barker.

One day in 2010, after hours of heavy drinking, Barker went into Vicki's room and beat her severely, according to a witness who testified in court. When Barker finally was pulled away, according to the witness, the girl was struggling to breathe.

Vicki died a day later. She was 2.

Barker ultimately was convicted of second-degree murder and is now awaiting sentencing. As for the agency that made the decision to place Vicki with Barker despite all of the warnings, it got hit with the maximum penalty allowed — a fine of $150.

Nearly three decades ago, California began privatizing part of its foster care program as part of a grand experiment. But an analysis of state records by the Los Angeles Times has found that those children living in residences run by private agencies are now about 33 percent more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children who reside in state-supervised foster family homes.

The state offers about $748 a month to individuals willing to care for foster youth, but there's a shortage of good homes.

Private agencies oversee the placement of some 15,000 children statewide. Convicted criminals are not allowed to be foster parents, but that requirement can be waived. According to the Times analysis, California is so short on foster parents that it has granted waivers to at least 5,300 people convicted of crimes. And sometimes, the outcomes of these decisions are tragic. State files include documented cases of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

As this investigative report points out, the state's experiment with privatization is at risk of failing as a result of lax government oversight of private agencies and low standards for many foster care parents. And children like Vicki Vanclief are paying the price.

Fixing this system needs to be a top priority for the governor and Legislature in the new year.

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