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L.A. County supervisors terminate relationship with foster care agency [Updated]

March 30, 2010 |  2:07 pm

Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate their relationship with the troubled foster care agency that placed a 2-year-old girl with a woman who is now under investigation in connection with her death.

United Care, which oversaw 88 homes with 216 foster children under contract with the county, had been repeatedly cited in recent years after caregivers choked, hit or whipped their charges with a belt. In 2007, a foster child drowned while swimming unsupervised in a pool.

Craig Woods, United’s executive director, said the citation record obscured his agency’s strengths and urged the county to conduct a fuller investigation before severing ties.

“Terminating United Care’s contract will not accomplish what is needed to reform the system,” he said. “United Care has a stellar 21-year track record of partnership with the county.”

The foster mother, Kiana Barker, 30, and her boyfriend, James Julian, 38, were arrested earlier this month on suspicion of murder in connection with Viola Vancielf's death, according to Los Angeles police records. They were released two days later, with no charges filed.

Police are continuing to investigate the couple. Barker, a resident of South Los Angeles, told investigators Viola was trapped in a bed frame when she accidentally struck the child with a hammer while trying to free her, according to coroner's records. 

Viola had multiple bruises on her body, records show. The county coroner deemed the death a homicide. During supervisors’ questioning of Woods and their deliberations about whether to terminate United, new details emerged about the missed warning signs that preceded the death.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said his vote to terminate United was at least partially supported by Woods' admission that the agency’s social workers made errors during visits to the Barker home. According to Yaroslavsky, they did not report that many of the home’s rooms were padlocked shut and there were video cameras in most of the rooms and corridors.

The purpose of the video cameras was not discussed. Additionally, Yaroslavsky said he was troubled that Barker was certified as a foster parent despite a criminal record. According to a Times review, Barker was convicted of felony theft in 2002.

The newspaper disclosed earlier that Barker also had been the subject of five child abuse complaints, including one substantiated case involving her biological child.

Julian had a record of armed robbery, but neither United Care nor the state regulator who licenses foster homes was aware he was living in the home, state records show.

Woods said his agency had been aware of Barker’s criminal record but did not believe it was a problem because she had obtained a decision from state regulators that it did not pose a danger.

“I would say that as many as half of the foster homes in Los Angeles County have a criminal background,” Woods said.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said she did not believe that number and would look into the matter. [Updated at 6:13 p.m.: A California Department of Social Services spokeswoman, Lizelda Lopez, said that only 4.67% of foster family agency parents have received an exemption for a crime that would otherwise bar them.]

Woods also faulted the county for missing the warning signs, saying the county was in the final stages of approving Barker to adopt Viola.

“Miss Barker was less than 30 days away from adopting this child. That adoption was being managed by DCFS,” Woods said. “That adoption home study is supposed to be a lot more extensive and intrusive than a foster home certification.”

-- Garrett Therolf at the L.A. County Hall of Administration

Read more in The Times' investigation: Innocents Betrayed

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