(5 of 7)
In the past decade, as the foster-care population has soared, California and other states have contracted out more and more services for their poorest children. In theory, kids should be safer because private agencies have the flexibility and funding to deal better with children. In Los Angeles County, for example, state-licensed foster homes had 1 caseworker for every 70 kids. Private agencies routinely have 1 social worker dealing with only 12 to 15 kids. But the private agencies have presented a new set of problems.
Gilbreania Wallace, a two-year-old African-American girl, was a ward of the Grace Home for Waiting Children, a private foster-care agency in Los Angeles founded in 1992 by former and on-leave bureaucrats of California's department of children and family services, as well as members of its Black Employees Association. They set up the Grace Home, hoping a knowledgeable black staff might attract larger numbers of African-American foster parents and work more efficiently with them.
Gilbreania was placed in the home of Doris Jean Bennett, who was called Miss Doris. Her record was spotty. Miss Doris, a homemaker, had seen two children in her care suffer broken bones under questionable circumstances; an infant boy had come to the hospital comatose allegedly after being shaken. (She convinced investigators that the shaking occurred before she got the child.) On June 1999 she took the fatally injured Gilbreania to a hospital, claiming she had slipped and fallen in the bathtub. But doctors examining her discovered injuries so severe that the child's brain had been pushed into her spine as a result of blunt trauma. She died a week later, and Miss Doris was charged with murder.
The case helped focus light on another potential evil of private contractors: corruption. Early on, concern was raised over employees on leave from the department of children and family services starting their own agency. Critics noticed the department had quickly assigned children to the agency, a result of blatant favoritism. Thus Grace Home was off and running, supported by county revenues. An audit alleged, however, that the agency's director had misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars on trips to Washington and Atlanta, as well as a six-week stay in Africa. The director even charged the government for his subscription to Travel & Leisure magazine. The 1995 audit found numerous safety violations in the agency's homes: untrained child watchers, unchecked criminal backgrounds, unsecured knives, broken glass, inoperable smoke detectors and toxic substances within reach of children.
The director's replacement was no improvement. Although she promised a zeal for children, she also allegedly had a zeal to spend money. Even as children in the agency's care couldn't get dental exams and foster parents couldn't get first-aid training, Grace Home was spending $250,000 in foster-care funds to defend a sexual-harassment suit and gave an additional $130,000 to a board member. The books listed $6,725 in Toys "R" Us gift certificates with no receipt. The new director gave herself nearly $10,000 for a retroactive pay raise, car payments and bonuses. The findings were released by auditors in July 1999, a month after Gilbreania was beaten to death. Grace Home finally went out of business.