How L.A.’s Pete Digre Clips Foster Care Spiral

Bill Howard
September 1, 1995

Three years ago in YOUTH TODAY’s inaugural edition (YT Sept./Oct., ’92) we reported the beginnings of a radically new “family preservation” program being tried in Los Angeles County to reduce soaring foster care costs. We characterized it as Pete Dirge’s $7.4 million gamble – the amount the county could lose if it failed. So how did the gamble pan out? Here’s an on-the-scene update.


Orlando Lee’s memories of his years on Skid Row are fuzzed by alcohol and drugs. But he easily recalls the day he woke up in a cardboard box with a Thunderbird hangover, a painful blister on his foot and a sudden fit of remorse that his behavior as a father was harming his 7-month-old daughter, Danielle.

Not only had he abandoned the little girl but so had her mother – Lee’s ex-girlfriend, who was a drug addict. Danielle was being cared for as a foster child by her maternal grandmother, herself a heavy drinker, he said. For a couple of days, Lee had tried to keep the infant with him in the box.

“I’d been in and out of jail. Not caring about nuttin’, y’know. Spendin’ all my money on Thunderbird and smokin’ pot n’ crack. And I was tired of it. Tired of carrying my house around with me in a plastic crate that held all my goods. Tired of living in a cardboard box and knowin’ I was damagin’ my daughter’s life. So, I decided to get some help. It was a Sunday in February 1992 when I went into a program at a church.”

That decision proved to be a momentous turning point for 4-year-old Danielle and for Lee, who is now 37 – after nine years of bumming on L.A.’s mean streets. Since then, Lee has undergone nine months of treatment to quit and stay clean of drugs and booze and put his life in shape. He’s found a job, acquired an apartment, reclaimed Danielle from foster care, gotten married and regained “my self-respect as a man, taking care of my family.”

Danielle now has a stepmother and five stepbrothers and sisters as well as a father.

Much of his transformation, Lee says, he owes to Rafik Philobos, his caseworker at Equipoise Services, Inc., “who treated me like a brother, got me into parenting classes on how to raise a girl and to watch my mouth.” Philobos helped in finding the apartment and a job; he even arranged for a woman member of Lee’s church to be his mentor in doing Danielle's hair.

6,000-plus Kids Served

But in a broad context the true savior of Lee and Danielle – and of thousands more troubled adults and youth like them living in L.A.’s poorest sections – is Peter Digre, 49, director of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). A one-time youth worker who took command of the department in 1991, Digre has pioneered creation of the revolutionary new system employing Equipoise and 300 more private agencies to deliver “family preservation” services right in their own communities to bring parents and kids back together.

Performed in-home and at clinics, churches and day care centers. The services include drug abuse treatment, counseling, parenting and job training, day care, housing and whatever other help families need lo solve the problems that are ripping them apart.

The goal: change abusive and neglectful behaviors in families that jeopardize their children — especially the disintegrative effects of drug addiction — and thus avoid the necessity of placing or keeping the children in foster care. More than 80 percent of its child abuse and neglect eases involve parental substance abuse, DCFS says.

Since March 1992, the program has served families with more than 6,000 children. By the department's — and the assessment of more impartial observers — it is proving highly successful at holding together families like Orlando Lee's at no compromise in child safety.

"Let's say its a whole lot better than what L.A. county has had in the past," said Dr. Gloria Waldinger, a recently retired professor of social work at UCLA and now a child welfare consultant. "Pete Digre's commitment to the safely of children remains very high — it’s the priority everybody lakes very seriously."

Describing herself as a skeptic when Digre started up the program, Deanne Tilton of L.A.’s Inter-agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN) said she's sold on it now. Recently, she helped survey family preservation programs around the country for the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. The result: "I'd say Digre's program is the best I saw — the most clearly articulated and monitored – and with the clearest guidelines.”

No formal evaluation of the program and its outcomes has yet been attempted by the department or an outside agency, though one is promised. So its not known how long kids stay reunified with their parents or how many get recycled back into the child welfare system. Instead, Digre cites overall performance to proclaim the program — in his words — an "enormous success." His most telling numbers:

"Over a 2-year period we've seen 33 percent less kids going into foster care in the community family preservation networks,” he told YOUTH TODAY. “We now have about 75 percent of the county covered with 25 programs implemented. So we've seen a huge difference where those networks are on line.”

Lobbying the Senate

Not only has this inspired rapid expansion of L.A.’s networks but turned Digre into a Washington lobbyist to preserve federal funding to help pay for it. Earlier this summer he was one of the persuaders of the Senate Finance Committee to drop the Child Protection block grant from the House-passed “Personal Responsibility Act.” If the full Senate sticks by that decision, and spares the $1 billion Family Preservation (FP) program from oblivion in welfare reform legislation, Digre could boost his FP spending to $32-35 million a year — $5-8 million coming from the feds and the rest in state funds.

Otherwise, there could be cutbacks by LA. county which has severe fiscal problems.

Another potential indicator of the program's success: since its implementation there has been a substantial decrease in the number of child homicides by parents/caretakers in Los Angeles County. The number of such murders, which hit a five-year peak of 61 in 1991, tell to 41 in 1993 and is still dropping, according to Tilton's inter-agency council which expects to have the total for 1994 compiled by November.

How much, if any, of the decrease can be attributed directly to family preservation, however, Tilton declined to speculate. Other factors could affect the rate like better reporting of abuse and neglect by the public and greater vigilance in schools.

Indeed, Digre's program itself is quite selective in screening out families which might pose a danger to their children.

"Family preservation isn't for everyone,” he said. "You shouldn't assume you can work miracles if you don't have motivation on behalf of the family — like Orlando Lee's. If the families won't try, you have to put their kids in foster care. I've always felt that way and its how we've constructed the program."

Under a pilot program now underway, ICAN's Deanne Tilton said Digre is teaming police with child protection workers in assess reports of child abuse. “If either partner in the assessment thinks the child is in danger, the child is not left in the home,” she said – underscoring the safety priority.

There are 2.3 million children in Los Angeles County’s 9 million population. About 50 percent are Latino, 27 percent Anglo, 11 percent African-American and 11 percent Asian or Pacific Islanders. Nearly one-fifth of the children exist in extreme poverty and 10 percent, or more than 40,000 are homeless – conditions that along with substance abuse were contributing to the county’s ballooning foster care costs when Digre launched the family preservation program in 1992. By a 1990 count, more than 33,000 children were in out-of-home care – 19,000 of them in permanent placements – at an annual cost of more than $256 million that was ratcheting upward by 15-20 percent a year.

Currently, the number of L.A. County children in placement is at 40,000. But there's progress in bringing the number down.

No Big Dollar Savings

Since March 1992, the department says, the number of children entering foster care in South Central L.A., Compton, North Central L.A., East Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, Long Beach and other areas with family preservation programs in place has grown by only 1 percent. By contrast, as of May 1995, placements in non-family preservation areas had soared by 34 percent — which is how Digre arrives at the 33 percent difference, or reduction, in measuring the program's effectiveness.

In actual dollar outlays, however, California taxpayers haven't saved much money.

Bruce Rubenstein, Digre's deputy director in charge of the family preservation program and, like Digre, a former official of Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services, said a good share of the $19 million estimated "avoidance" in foster care payments — some $12 million a year — has been plowed back into direct family preservation and support services provided by community agencies. Another $2 million has gone into drug treatment and developing of joint programs with the police and Mental Health Department, plus program administration. Which figures out to a "saving" of $5 million.

Breaking Abuse Cycle

Dare's family preservation approach is among its most comprehensive in the country. Services are flexible and customized in length and depth to suit each client in sharp contrast to the short-term (6-week), one-size-fits-all approach of the once much-touted Homebuilders variety promoted by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

Marcia Allen of the federall-funded National Center on Family-Based Services, Iowa City, Iowa, notes that a “lot of states that have Homebuilders have also developed an option of longer treatment programs for families” – swinging into line with Digre’s thinking.

In L.A., substance abuse treatment often is a controlling time factor – the average case lasts one year (six months of service and six months of extensions) with some warranting services for up to two years. The program requires drug abusing parents to go through treatment before they can get their kids back. “We use MediCal to pay for it,” Rubenstein said. “Parent’s otherwise lose eligibility for Medicaid when they’re apart from their kids, which acts as another incentive for family reunification.”

Kathyrn Icenhower, executive director of Shields for Families, a private agency at King-Drew Medical Center in South Center L.A., said mothers may spend up to 15 months, six days a week in its out-patient drug treatment program before graduating. Shields is, like Equipoise, a “lead agency” for a family preservation community network and lays out a reunification program for every patient.

In the case of Tamara L., a 25-ycar-old mother of four pretty well along in treatment, for example, Shields arranged a stepped reunification. Tamara has been allowed to regain custody of her two youngest aged two and three and said she's becoming adjusted to caring for them. "But its going to be awhile before I'll be up to taking the older ones, too." Both are still in foster care.

Shields has about 60 mothers currently in its drug treatment programs— with their infants. Typically, the women average about 30. "They've come into the program after 'bottoming out’ — losing all to their addictions," Rubenstein said during a recent visit to the center.

"It's a problem to get them when they're teenagers, and get out of the house and into peer relationships and heavier drug abuse and also become pregnant. The first kid usually isn't a drug baby. As time goes on they get into more and more relationships involving drugs so when they are 26 they have a drug habit. They have their first drug baby at 30 and another at 32. But a good seven times out of ten that mother is staying with the children and trying to straighten out her life."

The county now has over 22,000 children labeled as "permanently placed," a term Rubenstein finds distressing as it is odious because it spells long term care in group homes and institutional settings. "I'm very concerned that when these kids become 18 after growing up without parents and return to their communities, then becoming parents themselves — they have no role model of how to be a parent.

“These are the ones who are just shooting it out, abandoning their kids, getting heavily into drugs. We feel the transfer of authority and responsibility to the community can break the cycle."

Equipoise director Allan J. Kennett said his agency is on the lookout for just such opportunities. Recently, he said, they broke up a "family" of a mother and her boyfriend living in a tiny apartment with her 18-year-old daughter who also had a baby and a boyfriend. The younger woman was relocated to an apartment of her own and given schooling when they discovered she was illiterate. Now, she's in job training.

Leadership Factor

Digre, who began his career in the Sixties as a youth worker at the Berwyn Cieero (Ill.) YMCA, previously served as deputy director of the Illinois DCFS and the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitation Services and as director of Philadelphia's Children and Youth Services. His first managerial post was director of Omni Youth Services in Wheeling, Ill.

Holder of a doctorate in urban ministry from the University of Chicago, Digre worked for more than a year with a local committee of leading child advocates and service providers to devise the Los Angeles family preservation program. At the time he launched them, some observers questioned whether the community service networks could be assembled — and deliver.

"There's a lot of mistrust toward community agencies and their ability to take care of families'" said Sandra L. Figueroa, director since 1980 of El Centro del Pueblo, a youth advocacy program for gang members that leads the family preservation network for North Central L.A. near Hollywood. "I think Peter (Digre), knowing that, was taking a big risk working with these agencies. But he's been successful at being flexible with the staffs — he's such a good leader."

Another Digre innovation is a system of varied intensity of services to families based on need as determined by their community agency social worker. It has three levels:

1. Four once-a-week in-home contacts for which the agency is paid $856 a month;

2. Two in-home contacts per week at $1,114 a month;

3. Four in-home contacts per week at $1,460 per month.

There's also transitional care for those graduating the program of one in-home contact and family support group meetings at $333 per month and $1,000 per month for therapeutic day treatment of youths on probation who are rejoining their families.

Costs — mostly for staff salaries, plus help in equipping apartments for people like Orlando Lee — average out at about $1,300 a month per family.

In L.A.'s polyglot society, Digre also has insisted that families' Individual cultural backgrounds be respected — by assigning caseworkers who speak their clients' languages. Frederick Frank of the Boys and Girls Club of San Fernando Valley, another of Digre's lead agencies, said a Community Advisory Council was representing his program's population of 68 families which are 78 percent Hispanic and the remainder African-American and Caucasian.

"We're in the process of formalizing our council with a mission statement and elected officers," he said, "so our people will know whom to contact to help obtain services that meet their needs even better.

The Auditor ‘Glitch’

Funding of services originates in many long-standing categorical federal and state programs, some 30 to 50 years old — and all with different regulations governing expenses and reimbursements. Like the blending of such moneys in other jurisdictions at the local level, county auditors are questioning whether outlays meet regulations — and prompting one of the program's few major glitches.

A prime conflict: fee-for-service. Rubenstein said agencies offering child development services, for example, have had only to show an average daily attendance of 90-95 percent in classes to receive full funding from the state Education Department. But the DCFS auditors were insisting that for the various intensity levels of family preservation, agencies be paid only for the actual services rendered, which meant to the auditors that the caseworker saw all members of the family on each in-home visit. This, of course, did not allow for children who were, for example, attending school at the time of the visit.

Convincing auditors that school personnel have been alerted to these children in treatment and are keeping them under scrutiny as well — so the agency should be paid — hasn't been easy. Indeed, Digre and Rubenstein are still battling the accounting department on this and other issues.

Doing away with — or greatly paring down — regulations understandably is one aspect of the block granting of child welfare programs under the Republican-proposed "Personal Responsibility Act" that Rubenstein favors, so long as the funding isn't cut. "Blending of these hundreds of narrowly-focused programs should be targeted on outcomes—good outcomes for children and families," he said. "Flexibility is what we need. The outcome should be family preservation — not program preservation."

Los Angeles' family preservation system may be a good model for smaller communities in the opinion of child welfare consultant Dr. Gloria Waldheim. "Replication even may be easier in more modest-sized cities than LA. where the public and private sectors already have a good relationship and where all parts of the system know each other and work together," she said. "Certainly from all evidence to date Los Angeles is not providing a lower level of services nor hurting kids in any way."

To Pete Digre, his creation is "absolutely perfectly replicable." He observes that most cities around the country already have local service networks.

"It's just a matter of identifying what's out there, identifying what's viable and has stability in the community and begin building on it. Every urban community already has the potential in place." Many of the LA, "lead agencies" like Equipoise and El Centro del Pueblo have been in business since the early 1970's and possess such stability.

And what now for Orlando Lee who's gained local recognition as a kind of super model for responsible fatherhood? Says Digre somewhat incredulously: "Would you believe he's sold a movie contract to HBO for his life story — and doing a lot better than most people!" Only in America.

Some L.A. Family Preservation Resources
  • Peter Digre, Director

    L.A. County DCFS

    425 Shatto Place

    Los Angeles, CA 90020

  • Allan J. Kennett, Exec. Dir.

    Equipoise, Inc.

    216 East Bennett

    Compton, CA 90220

    310-631-6598 FAX 310-638-3582
  • Kathryn Icenhower, Exec. Dir.

    Shields for Families

    3201 North Alameda St. - Suite H

    Compton, CA 90222

    310-605-5175 FAX 310-605-0266
  • Deanne Tilton, Exec. Dir.

    Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect

    4024 North Durfee Ave.

    El Monte, CA 91738

    818-575-4362 FAX 818-444-4851
  • Frederick Frank, Administrative Director

    Total Family Care Network

    Boys and Girls Club of San Fernando Valley

    1125 Glenoakes Blvd.

    Pacoima, CA 91331

    818-896-5261 FAX 818-897-5866
  • Marcia Allen, Exec. Dir.

    National Resource Center for Family-Based Services

    School of Social Work

    University of Iowa

    112 N. Hall

    Iowa City, IA

Collaboratives for Children, Youth, and Families in Los Angeles County. April 1995. Compiled by and available from the LA. County Children's Planning Council 213-893-0421 FAX 213-680-1415.

Community Plan for Family Preservation in Los Angeles County. Available from the Commission for Children's Services 213-974-1558 FAX 213-625-5813.

Howard, Bill. "How L.A.’s Pete Digre Clips Foster Care Spiral." Youth Today, September/October 1995, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.