Chairman MILLER. Next the committee will hear from a panel
made up of Dennis Lepak, who is a Deputy Probation Officer of
Contra Costa County, Calif.; and Suella Gallop, who is from the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
from New York; and Janet Fink from the New York Legal Aid So-
If you will come forward we will take your testimony in the
order in which I called your names, and your written statements
will be included in the record of the committee in their entirety.
The extent to which you want to summarize your testimony would
be appreciated. Also, the extent to which you may want to respond
to something that was said by the previous panel would also be
helpful to us.
Dennis, welcome to the committee. We'll start with you.
STATEMENT OF DENNIS LEPAK, DEPUTY PROBATION OFFICER,
CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CALIF., PROBATION DEPARTMENT,
AND VICE PRESIDENT, CALIFORNIA ORGANIZATION OF
MENTAL HEALTH ADVISORY BOARDS
Mr. LEPAK. Thank you very much, Chairman Miller.
I'm a probation officer for Contra Costa County, CA, and vice
president of the State of California Organization of Mental Health
In California, probation departments are responsible for the
placement of thousands of children, in both conventional foster
homes and larger group homes. Probation departments are often
forced to assume responsibility for children who are railroaded into
the criminal justice system on menial and trumped up charges.
Police, parents and other agencies conspire to have children ar-
rested. Pushing aside a mother becomes an assault, coming in a
window of a child's own bedroom becomes breaking and entering,
and a ride in the family car is charged as auto theft.
They do this to obtain help for the child and the family.
Two and a half years ago when I was assigned to the juvenile
placement unit, I thought I knew what to expect. But I was unpre-
pared for what congressman Miller calls the shadowy world of
My first exposure to abuses in the system was in December of
1985, when I spent 2 days and a night at the Rite of Passage Wil-
derness Camp, a group home for California boys, located on an
Indian reservation in the high desert of central Nevada.
Boys were intentionally denied clothing adequate for the harsh
conditions, routinely assaulted by staff, and deprived of meals.
Despite my report to every local, State -- both California and
Nevada -- and Federal agency, there are now 60 more boys at the
camp then when I was there 2 years ago.
Rite of Passage is only a dramatic example of many programs de-
signed to isolate and contain foster children. These programs do
little to meet the needs of children and families.
Most placement children come from very dysfunctional families.
Parents suffer serious, yet untreated, mental problems, usually
combined with alcoholism and drug addiction. The children are
physically, and more often than seems possible, sexually abused.
They, in turn, have serious emotional and drug problems.
We know how to intervene effectively in these families. But since we
lack the necessary outpatient treatment programs, we pull the
children from the homes and put them in the available placements,
most of which are not at all prepared to deal with the specific prob-
lems of the family and the child.
I could spend the entire day telling you story after story of terri-
ble things that have happened to children in this system. There is
no shortage of horror stories.
God help the children without families to protect them.
Let me tell you about the system.
Most tragically, children are placed with little or no services to
prevent their removal from families. Children are often removed
from homes that no representative of the removing agency has
Decisions to remove children are based on information from old
reports, office interviews, and phone calls. Caseload sizes dictate
this approach. Many California placement workers carry caseloads
of many more than 60 children.
Children are put in inappropriate placements, not designed to
offer family counseling, psychiatric treatment, or drug treatment.
Children are not prepared to return to families, nor are they pro-
vided with a specialized educational and vocational training they
need to survive after they become 18.
They become the new homeless.
Children are usually placed at great distances, or even in other
States. Incredibly, this appears to be the unwritten policy of many
placement agencies. Children placed far from home are easier to
Most children, we feel, should be placed in their home school dis-
Children are placed for inappropriately long and arbitrarily de-
termined periods of time. The great majority of group home place-
ments in California refuse to accept referrals unless they are as-
sured that children will be placed for at least 1 year.
This seems to be an industry standard.
Little or no work is done to return children to their families,
Most programs consider home visits to be a privilege, and visits are
used as rewards for good behavior rather than as reunification
I have seen Christmas home visits for young children cancelled
for violation of relatively minor internal program rules. There is
no incentive for foster homes and group homes to return children
to families. Rapid turnover results in loss of needed funds. All the
incentives for placement operators work against family reunifica-
Although I am sure it is not apparent from my testimony so far,
I actually believe that most foster parents and group home opera-
tors are some sort of saints. I think they mistakenly put too little
value on the importance of a family to a child, however.
When child care workers become involved with a family, it's be-
cause that family is in severe and acute crisis, and needs immedi-
ate help from a variety of human service agencies, such as mar-
riage and family counselors, child psychiatrists, alcohol and drug
abuse clinics, rape counselors and sex abuse experts, family stress
centers, and parent effectiveness trainers.
These services are not only not immediately available, they have
waiting lists so long that they effectively do not exist. In our
county we have well over 100 children waiting for outpatient
mental health services. We know our responsibilities under Public
Law 96-272, but we have no resources.
We cannot deliver the child the required services, or the family,
so we deliver the child alone to the group homes.
In my home county we are reexamining placement practices. We
are looking at why we place so many children so far away. We are
finding out we can work effectively with children placed near
home, and can return them to their families much sooner.
We have also been studying various family preservation models.
The intensive, short-term, home-based programs designed to
change situations so children may safely remain with families.
In the area of family preservation, we had a distinct advantage.
We were introduced to the concept by our Congressman, George
Miller. He not only was aware of the problems we faced, he under-
stood them better than we did.
With the help of both his district aide, Carol Hatch, and Ann
Rosewater of the Select Committee, we formed a family preserva-
tion task force. But while we can get all the State and Federal
funds we need for family splitting, we are unable to find any funds
for family preservation.
When I leave Washington today, I will be going to a meeting of
the California Mental Health Advocates for Children and Youth,
more than 300 advocates who unanimously endorse services that
keep children safely in homes, and community based placements
for those who must be removed.
Anyone who spends some time with this group comes away con-
vinced that radical reform of the foster care system is inevitable. It
simply makes too much sense, in both fiscal and human terms, to
The question is, how much longer must the children caught in
the present system suffer?
Thank you for listening.
Chairman MILLER. Thank you very much.
[The statement of Dennis Lepak follows:]