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Like Stealing A Homeless Guy's Sandwich
There are those robberies you hear about from time to time -- like the thug in New York who beat up some 90-something-year-old lady for her purse -- that are so low it's hard to fathom how even the scummiest scumbag manages to go there. This is one of these cases: Department of Children and Family Services employees who allegedly skimmed, no, ladled, out of the pot meant for foster children. Here's the e-mail I sent out to all the Los Angeles DCFS e-mail addresses I could find:


D. Heimpel writes for the LA Weekly:

ON CHRIS’ 17TH BIRTHDAY, he got two T-shirts and a sweater from his friend’s foster mom. His group home gave him a $20 bill. He spent the day shooting hoops and hurling a football on the lush, green grass of Pan Pacific Park. His friend’s foster mom, not the government, arranged the day.

Afterward, he went to work at a burger joint not far from his group home, deep in South L.A. That was his birthday.

Chris says he didn’t receive a gift card that day (or ever) from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the 7,200-employee system that handles this county’s orphans and unwanted. He never questioned it. A kid without a family is used to not getting much.

But officials say a group of Los Angeles County foster-care employees decided to take a share of the crumbs taxpayers provide to foster children as they struggle in an often frightening and lonely life. According to an audit by the Los Angeles County auditor-controller that landed with an embarrassing thud before the Board of Supervisors this month, four employees purchased gift cards to Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa and P.F. Chang’s. They spent $14,000 on tickets to Wicked, at the time the musical-theater rage of L.A. Of 160 tickets purchased — using taxpayer money earmarked for gifts for foster children — only 53 tickets went to kids.

Most were used by county employees and their entourages. But it wasn’t enough for these government workers to have a night on the town and pilfer the kids’ tickets. The audit revealed that the same employees spent $5,700 for 150 tickets to House of Blues’ Sunday gospel brunch — and just 43 of the tickets went to kids. The remaining 107 tickets were divvied up among employees, “mentors” and a DCFS vendor, according to the audit.

...The audit suggests $250,000 was spent on entertainment and gift cards meant for children and their mentors.

The four employees are members of the tiny Services Outcome Improvement Project, also known as the Mentorship Section, Los Angeles County DCFS Director Patricia S. Ploehn told the L.A. Weekly.

County officials, from the auditor involved to the county counsel, have refused media requests to identify the four. Moreover, the Mentorship Section did not return calls from the L.A. Weekly, and Ploehn insisted that publicly naming the four would somehow “truly hurt the investigation.” However, the D.A.’s Office lifted the veil somewhat, telling the Weekly that its investigative case is filed under the name Sherrie Hiller, a children’s service administrator.

The Mentorship Section, supposedly dedicated to lifting these children up through partnerships with adult mentors, has just six employees, says DCFS spokesman Stewart Riskin, yet its $1.25 million budget is intended to help those children most at risk: the ones nearing their often-dreaded “emancipation” at 18, when they are, by law, kicked out and often have no home or family to turn to.

Gift cards divert the young adults’ attention from the crap in their lives. “Kids come filthy, hungry and unkempt,” Riskin says. “The gift certificates are sometimes used to take them to McDonald’s, and to get them basic clothes.”

Well, when they aren't diverted to mudwraps and deluxe brunches and Broadway shows for the people who are supposed to be their first line of defense.

On a writing and reporting note, compare this story to the earlier story in the LA Times by Jack Leonard. Now, maybe Heimpel had more time, but there's also real effort here by Heimpel to dig up names, and there's also a much more interesting story here because there's a human angle instead of just dry reporting on policy violation. I think it was either David Carr or Willy Stern who spoke at an Association of Alt Newsweeklies conference and said something like, "Don't write about poverty, write about how Sonja can't afford lunch."

P.S. It's possible, per Kate Coe, that Hiller's name was spelled wrong in the Weekly's story. This DCFS doc has "Sherry Hiller."

Posted by aalkon at November 15, 2007 11:59 AM


Government service attracts some good people, but it also attracts some sketchy people. And, it brings out the sketchiness in some initially good people.

Posted by: doombuggy at November 15, 2007 8:40 PM

Remember how I said a while back that I had severely reduced my use of the word "evil" post-9/11 to refer to people who are actually, y'know, evil, as opposed to just venal? Well, I feel quite comfortable saying that these people are evil. It's one thing to look at a fund that has $3 million intended to go to landscape city property and decide to swipe some funds from that - that's not admirable, but it's on the venal level. Viewing a fund that's supposed to provide small benefits for children who have been failed in every way possible as a slush fund is evil. No, they haven't killed anyone, but I still think we're at the evil level.

Posted by: marion at November 15, 2007 9:44 PM

Actually, Marion, that comment of your has stuck with me, and you're absolutely right. They're evil. I've been furious about this since I heard about it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at November 15, 2007 10:32 PM

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