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DCFS is asking families to consider fostering infants, toddlers, sibling pairs

8/28/2013, 6 a.m.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — County welfare authorities made a plea today for more families to consider fostering infants, toddlers, sibling pairs and special needs children.

The Department of Children and Family Services has seen a recent surge in the number of children in need of foster care.

Last July, the department had to find temporary placements for about 100 children. This July, social workers scrambled to find homes for roughly 400 children, according to a county spokesman.

The increase in reports of abuse that left children temporarily without a home may have been spurred by  the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was allegedly tortured by his mother’s boyfriend.

Gabriel Fernandez was left in his mother’s care, despite multiple calls to child welfare officials over a period of several years.

But the shortage of foster parents is also a result of shifting demographics and a bias toward reunifying families when possible, according to child welfare authorities.

“We don’t have as many options for our children,” said DCFS spokesman Armand Montiel. While infants and toddlers may be a first choice for adoptive families, foster parents who know that young children may ultimately be returned to their biological parents seem reluctant to take them in, he said.

Other reliable foster parents are aging and no longer feel able to care for very young children, Montiel said.

“Our biggest challenge is to recruit loving families that are willing to take toddlers, infants, siblings and special needs children, knowing that our priority is family reunification,” Montiel said.

Financial pressures may also have contributed to the drop in available foster homes, down by nearly 50 percent over the last five years. While parents are paid for fostering children, the costs of caring for an infant runs particularly high.

Whatever the cause, the county has been left with a “acute” need and children have had to stay in temporary holding rooms longer than state regulators allow. A Los Angeles Times investigation, which looked at a period from May 28 to July 5, found that 117 children were kept in a “welcome center” at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center or, in the case of children over 12, conference room facilities with cots, beyond the 24-hour state limit.

Those violations have prompted a threat of state fines and the possibility of a lawsuit by children’s rights advocates, but Montiel says a longer stay may be in a child’s best interest.

“There are vacancies, but they may not be the best vacancy,” he said.

Moving a child from his or her home in Los Angeles out to the Antelope Valley, for example, would not be the best choice if only an extra day is needed to find a relative closer by. Keeping siblings together, which makes placement even trickier, is also a priority.

Social workers are left balancing the search for the best possible home against the near-term impact of sometimes chaotic conditions of county holding rooms, according to Montiel, who said there is “no ready solution” beyond finding more families to fill the gap.

He urged families considering opening their home to a foster child to call (888) 811-1121 to learn more. Information on fostering is also available at www.shareyourheartla.org.