LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- In Los Angeles County, there are almost 19,000 children in foster care. More than 600 need a permanent home. This is the story of the people who dedicate their lives to these kids and how a worldwide pandemic hasn't stopped them.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, social workers answer L.A. County's Child Protection Hotline.
"We hear the most tragic of situations," revealed Crystal Boulden, a supervising children social worker for L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services' Child Protection Hotline.
For many kids, a call to the hotline is often the start of a long road to finding a new home. The calls are so extensive, Boulden can only take about eight calls per day. On average, the child protection hotline receives up to 800 calls per day, but during the height of the pandemic, those calls dropped significantly.
In 2020, they fell by 20%.
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"Teachers are a large part of our reporting parties," said Boulden. "When schools weren't in, we weren't getting as many calls from the professionals who see kids on a daily basis."
Carlos Torres is the hotline's division chief. He said during peak hours, they have around 90 social workers answering phones, and they get about 100 calls per hour. The calls range from reports of severe abuse and neglect to people seeking resources for children in need.
Due to the pandemic, a majority of the staff now works from home, but some calls require an immediate response in person. That's where people like Tania Cendejas come into the picture.
She's a children's social worker and a member of the emergency response team.
"In emergency response, we are assigned on duty every so many days. We're on rotation and we're called out to immediate response referrals. Even prior to COVID, the job comes with its challenges, even on the best day," said Cendejas. "I, myself, was a dependent of the public child welfare system, specifically here in Los Angeles. I entered the system around the age of 2 and was placed in different resource homes. There were times when permanency fell through for whatever reasons, and then in 1993, I was adopted. So that was a success story of DCFS because I've experienced it. I really have empathy for these kids who are in these circumstances at no fault of their own. Sometimes things happen in life that we can't really understand or make sense of. But at the end of the day, I think that kids are really resilient. Given the proper resources or forms of support, kids can really thrive and make progress and be successful."
Cendejas handles the most severe cases.
Sometimes, kids will be removed from their families and placed into the care of DCFS, where their journey into the system begins.
There are about 19,000 children in the care of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. Ultimately, the goal is to get those kids back home to their parents, but that's not the case for everyone. Some children are in such desperate situations that a specialized response is needed.
An unsettling reality
DCFS will sometimes refer those cases to organizations like Saving Innocence, a group that focuses on rescuing children from sex traffickers.
"The youngest kiddo we've ever worked with was a tender 7 years old. It's hard to even say that," said Saving Innocence Director Alan Smythe, who is also the co-author of "Men! Fight for Me: The Role of Authentic Masculinity in Ending Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking."
"It's the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, the buying and selling of other people," Smythe explained. "It's called the modern day slavery."
There are many different ways children end up being sex trafficked, but of the kids that work with Saving Innocence, 80% of them are in foster care.
Oree Freeman is a child sex-trafficking survivor. She entered the foster care system when she was just 2 days old.
Now as a 26-year-old, she's a mother, a college student and victims' advocate.
"I went out to a local street right here in Los Angeles. The other night, I counted 78 girls. Twenty [were] probably under the age out of 78," said Freeman. "It doesn't sound like a lot, but those are girls that are being forced to work on the streets. [That doesn't include] the girls working the internet. The youngest that I came in contact with was 14."
The area she's talking about is minutes from the University of Southern California and downtown L.A. The sex trafficking happens out in the open, but it can happen anywhere.
"Don't get me wrong. People live in amazing neighborhoods and nice communities and stuff, but it's happening right there," said Freeman. "I was sex-trafficked right across the street from Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth. You can't tell me that it [doesn't] happen in your backyard."
Freeman was born in Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) - a female-only California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison located in Chowchilla, California.
She was given up for adoption by her mother.
"A lot of us, I believe that we come from these homes of generations of trauma that are unhealed," said Freeman.
She said she was adopted by a single, loving mom who worked three jobs to support the two of them. When her adopted mother was not home, Freeman said a family friend began molesting her - she was just 5 years old.
When Freeman was about 10, her abuse was reported, but she said the case was dropped, and justice was never served. After that, she chose to run away from home.
"I wasn't running to the streets. I wasn't running to my friend's house. I was running away from the simple fact that what I was experiencing in my home - I didn't feel protected," said Freeman. "I didn't feel safe. I felt unwanted. I felt unloved, and I feel unseen."
Freeman said the first person to give her a place to stay was a sex-trafficker. From when she was 11 up until she was 15, Freeman said she was sex-trafficked thousands of times. It was also around this time she said her adoptive mother gave up custody.
"I know what it's like from 11 to 15 years old to be bounced from eight to nine different foster homes and group homes," said Freeman. "And nobody wants you. I know what that's like, and there's so many other kids that are experiencing that today because no one will take us."
Through a series of dark and lonely times, Freeman finally found solace, and she said it took a group of empathetic individuals with a passion for saving lives.
"No one ever asked what had happened to me until I got to a really healthy place in my life at 15 years old and I got into [...] a group home that changed my life," she recalled. "It wasn't about the facility. It's not about the place. It's not about the home. It's about the people that serve the youth."
"Many of them were planting seeds in my life. Even though they couldn't see the flower blossom, and they couldn't see me right then at the moment at 15 ... just get your life together. I'm 26 years old. I'm in college and I'm getting ready to graduate. I have an amazing healthy daughter. I have healthy relationships," she said. "I'm in therapy three times a week. It took [consistency.] It took people to show up. They are my daughter's grandfather, they are my daughter's grandmother, they are my daughter's auntie, [and] they are her uncle ... when I look at my circle around my daughter, that's wrapped around her. They didn't only change my life. They're changing the life of the next person, the next generation, because that's what it's all about."
An unforeseen hurdle
Saving Innocence recognizes how important stability is for the children they serve. It's the reason they started a program to recruit foster families specifically for their kids.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed their progress.
"During the pandemic, it was really tough because we didn't stop servicing these youth. Trafficking didn't stop. A lot of other things stopped, but trafficking didn't," said Saving Innocence Resource Family Administrator Diana Redeemer. "Many families were afraid. The ones that were in between, thinking about becoming a foster parent, kind of halted that process and said, you know, 'Let's wait until we can understand this pandemic more.' So it really put a halt on our recruitment of foster families."
Getting adopted is hard enough. The children at Saving Innocence face yet another hurdle - overcoming the stigma of being a survivor of child sex trafficking.
"Many times, we meet people and we don't know their trauma. We don't know their background and we don't judge them as a person for that. I think the most challenging piece is that stigma that is over the children. And our kids that we work with here at Saving Innocence, [...] they need trust. They need the ability to see that you're there for the right reasons [...] to build that trust. That you're honest. That you're committed," said Redeemer.
"I get it. People want to help in other countries. You want to adopt kids from other countries. [There are] so many kids here that need to be fostered and need families. Too many of them that need somebody to just love them, to support them, to care about them," Freeman said.
"All these victims, they're more than survivors. They're more than victims. They're children. They're human beings. They have goals. They have dreams."
Freeman said adoption takes patience and understanding.
"You don't have to know how to do this. You just have to know how to love someone and do that unconditionally. Do that consistently," she said. "Show up as who you are, have your family show up and say, 'I'm going to take this kid, and I'm going to walk alongside them no matter what their journey is.' It's all about the seeds that we plant in a person's life. Every single day. You know the seed [that was] planted at 15, didn't blossom at 16, but it's definitely blossomed into this 26-year-old who's strong, who's bold, who's brave, who's a mother, who's a fighter ... There's hope."
"Every child has a story"
Another organization helping children find families is the Heart Gallery. The Heart Gallery is a national traveling photographic exhibit. The L.A. chapter is run by DCFS.
Professional photographers volunteer their time to take pictures of kids who are looking for a permanent home. That means court is no longer looking to reunite them with their families - instead those children are up for adoption.
In L.A. County, more than 600 kids are in this situation. One of those children the Heart Gallery is currently featuring is 10-year-old Jaxon. He's been in the foster care system since he was 5. Jaxon is now navigating two difficult realities simultaneously: finding a forever family in the middle of a pandemic.
As he goes from person to person and place to place, he has to be the one to look out for himself. Jaxon may only be 10 years old, but he seems older.
Academically, he's gifted. His teachers said he's ahead of his class. He's compassionate and has a love for creatures big and small.
Jaxon's partner behind the camera for the photoshoot is volunteer photographer Brooke Nevin.
"I am an actor by trade and also I work behind the camera as a director sometimes as well," she said. "I know what it's like to take a headshot. I know how much can be riding on one picture to have someone choose you."
Nevin said she feels a sense of joy when her photos lead to an adoption.
"I got my first opportunity to do a portrait session, and not shortly after I found out that the little girl I took pictures of had found her forever family," she said. "That is just the best feeling in the world that I could play some small part in making sure that a kid has another chance at having a family that can support her. Part of the adventure is just letting them lead the way a little bit. So they don't feel like it's a chore and it feels like we're just having fun. I let the children normally tell me where they want to go, and then we find great spots to take pictures from there. I think where the emotion comes in for me is just feeling the responsibility of wanting to make sure that I do right by the kids and make sure that I show them in their best light. Every portrait is a story, and we just hope that we can capture the stories that will let the public at large or potential interested adoptive parents take a moment to look at their picture and know that there's a story behind it and be interested."
Luwin Kwan is another volunteer photographer who is no stranger to this work. By day, he's a licensed therapist who works specifically with local foster youth.
"I think there's a stigma attached to kids in foster care," he said. "Oftentimes when people hear that, they think that the kids are problematic and come with a slew of behavioral and emotional issues. When in fact, like a lot of them have so much joy, personality and just need love. They just need someone to care for them and be their support and love and nurture them on top of providing basic needs. They really just need more people in their corner and someone to really just be behind them 100% unconditionally."
Kwan said he hopes more families will step in to help.
"I've often encountered siblings that get broken up. They don't hear or see from each other very often, and so that's just heartbreaking because in a perfect world, your family and your siblings are together," he said. "So I just hope that there's more and more families that are willing to step up and foster and take siblings and, and keep them together."
For anyone considering become a foster parent, Kwan sent an encouraging message saying, "You can do it. All it takes is, literally, taking that first step of like, 'Hey, I have love. I have room in my residence as well as my heart.'"
Looking to the future
The number of children entering foster care has decreased since 2018, but just like Saving Innocence, DCFS had a challenging time recruiting foster families during the pandemic. At the start of 2020 when L.A. County was completely shut down, the juvenile courts were closed for four months. That meant cases were left in limbo. Children were not being reunified with their families, adopted by new families or able to leave the system as an adult. When the courts reopened, there was a massive backlog in cases.
For kids like Loralie Henry, the journey to adoption has been a long one.
Loralie is 9 years old and spent almost half of her life in foster care. Her time in the system was longer than it should have been because of the pandemic.
"I was actually in foster when I was 4 [...] Then back in foster care when I was 6," she said. "It was actually really scary too. I didn't know what, like, to expect. The other homes are like what they would feed me. I didn't really know what to do. So I thought, 'Well, like, what should I do? Like, is there anyone waiting for me?' I was really scared. Until I met my mom, my second grade teacher."
Zoe Henry is a teacher who lives in La Verne. She's single mom who wasn't planning on adopting.
"She came into my class, and I took just one look at her. Her little freckles, her little birthmark. [I said] 'I am going to adopt this little girl. She's my daughter,' the minute I set eyes on her," said Henry.
"I remember the moment when we were like sitting by the car, she's like 'You're coming with me.' I was like, just so surprised and happy," recalled the little girl.
That was two years ago when Loralie was in the second grade.
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"With COVID, things got a little bit delayed. The court shut down, and then once they have filed the adoption paperwork [there was] another delay assigning an attorney," said Henry. "Because of COVID, there were a lot of kids that needed to be adopted. So these attorneys were backlogged with all these kids. [...] It seems like it's taken forever [but] I'm just so grateful for every little step that we've been through together."
On Nov. 20, which was National Adoption Day, Loralie was among 165 children who were officially adopted by their forever families. They're no longer in the care of L.A. County DCFS. Normally, the event would happen in person in a court room. It was a virtual ceremony for the Henrys, but it was just as special.
"There's so many kids that just need homes, and they're just waiting," she Henry. "I know her mom really loves her. I know she really wanted to be a better part of her life, but like I tell [Loralie] her mom loved her so much that she would let her be adopted so that I could give her what she needed."
Now that this adoption is official, both Henry and her daughter Loralie are already looking to the future.
"We have a four-bedroom house and we've got a bedroom with several beds and that's why we go on the Heart Gallery. We still have a lot of room in our hearts, in our home, and we want to open it up to more kids," said Henry.
Making a difference
There are 32,000 children in the care of DCFS. Some of them need a permanent home, while some of them need support until they get back to their home.
All of them, however, need a family.
There are many different ways to support these children living in L.A. County. Showing up for them is the first step. Below are several resources you can explore.
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