Why Are LA's Foster Kids More Likely to Be Charged With Crimes?

February 10, 2016

By Carrie Wang and Rachel Kohn

LOS ANGELES — Monserrat Zarza was 15 years old when she was assigned to a group home, only six months after entering the Los Angeles County foster care system. Group homes provide a placement option for hard-to-place children “with significant emotional or behavioral problems,” according to the state of California.

Being in an environment with several dozen other troubled kids was not what Zarza expected when she gathered the courage to pick up her phone and ask for help after a decade of physical and emotional abuse by her mother. She was hoping for a real family home. The idea of a group home scared her.

When Zarza first entered the system, she did live with a foster family for six months. During that period, Zarza’s biological mother told her that she wanted to commit suicide because of the investigation and scrutiny that Zarza had put her through. In reaction to her mother’s accusations and threats, Zarza said she began to abuse drugs to cope with all the trauma and stress she was feeling. That’s why she was discharged from her foster family and reassigned to the Penny Lane Group Home in North Hills, California, after social workers told her they could not find her another foster home.

Now 20, Zarza has tried to make the most of her life since leaving her mother. At Penny Lane, she enrolled in a program to sober up. She said she believed in the system — until one day the group home staff caught her roommate using drugs and called the police. Zarza stood and watched as police officers arrested her friend. She never saw the girl again.

Arrests as behavior control

The use of arrests to control the behavior of foster youth is reportedly an all-too-common practice in many group homes. Denise C. Herz, associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles, has analyzed data on crossover youth in Los Angeles County since 2007. (Crossover youth, or dual status youth, is a term for children who are victims of abuse or neglect who also enter the juvenile justice system.)

In her most recent report, released in May 2015, Herz found that 32 percent of the foster youth who were arrested were living in group homes. She also found in the 15-month study that African-American kids were greatly overrepresented among the crossover kids. Plus 36.6 percent of the crossover population were girls, as opposed to 20 percent in the general juvenile justice population.

Zarza said Herz’s study matched her experience. “When we had a problem, they [the staff in the group home] were supposed to help us get better.” Instead, when it came to her friend, she said, “they just threw the cops at her the first time they caught her using. They should have reached out to her drug counselor first. They should have confiscated the drugs and figured out another way instead of calling the police.”

Juvenile public defender Maureen Pacheco, who has been working with the juvenile justice system for 37 years, agreed that social workers in group homes tend to report youth too easily.

“Social workers see the delinquency court having this power to detain kids. It’s almost like a mother turning to a father and saying, ‘Punish him,’” Pacheco said. “So they look at the delinquency system as having the power to control these kids. And the control is they get locked up. They think of that as a traditional method of disciplining the kids.”

As an example, Pacheco points to a client (called Robert, to protect his anonymity). He lived in a large group home for seven years, she says, dealing with such problems as being adopted and unadopted multiple times. Recently, after tracking down his birth mother, Robert and his sister escaped from their group home to meet her. The experience has caused a flood of emotional issues for him.

Once during lunch, during an argument with a social worker, he mouthed off angrily, saying “I’m going to kill you” as he had a wrench in his hand. The social worker called the police, and Robert was put on probation for 17 months and is still on probation today.

Pacheco said the boy had never been known to be violent, but had often expressed his distress using empty threats. “To me that means this is a kid who is expressing his anger, but he is not somebody who is going to be a danger,” she said. “But because they [the group home staff] have liability for other people in the group home, they almost have to overreact in order to not have a situation where other kids get hurt. It is very discouraging because the liability has become their number one concern, not the well-being of the kids,” she said.

“With my two teenage sons, there were times when they would say horrible things to each other and make threats to each other. In a private home you are not likely to say, ‘I am going to call the police and have you arrested.’ You realize it is normal teenager behavior,” said Pacheco.

‘The system doesn’t parent'

Attorney Barbara Duey agrees with Pacheco. Duey, who is an attorney and crossover director for the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, said that because social workers often do not have the patience, time or training to adequately assess a kid’s emotional reaction in a high-stress situation, their first response is to pick up the phone and call the police when kids act out, as kids often do.

“The system doesn’t parent, the system just reacts,” she said.

“When I was growing up at home with my sister, we shared a bathroom. We got in fights all the time. If I picked up my hairbrush and threw it at her, and shattered the glass, I’m going to get grounded by my parents,” she said. “However, our kids get arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and vandalism if that same thing happens in a group home setting.”

According to Duey, the overreaction continues after police are called. When a foster youth is arrested while in the group home system, the offense with which he or she is charged is likely to be more serious than if the child is arrested outside the system. For example, the hairbrush toss could be categorized as assault with a deadly weapon. The youth in question would be taken to juvenile hall and the case would go to the District Attorney’s office.

“The next thing you know, they are in court facing felonies. It happens all the time,” Duey said.

http://jjie.org/why-are-los-angeles-foster-kids-more-likely-to-be-charged-with-crimes/