Violence and ‘crisis’: How hundreds of L.A. County’s abused children ended up in hotels
Pictured above: The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. In December 2021, the then-director of the city’s child welfare agency quietly struck a deal with the hotel’s operators to house foster youths and their social workers at the cost of $89 a night. (Los Angeles Times)
KATHRYN HURD, REBECCA ELLIS
This story was originally published by The Los Angeles Times on May 28, 2023.
A woman stumbled into the palatial lobby of downtown Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel earlier this year, pleading for someone to call the police.
Deep bruises were starting to form around her eyes. Blood crusted around her nostrils and mouth. She was so dazed that she didn’t notice a telephone cord wrapped around her neck.
She was a social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services who said a 16-year-old foster boy battered and sexually assaulted her in one of the hotel’s guest rooms.
The boy was one of hundreds of foster youths who Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency has placed in rented hotel rooms because it has no foster homes for them, according to reporting by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and The Times that included dozens of interviews as well as county records obtained under the California Public Records Act.
The alleged attack — as well as another on a social worker by a foster youth at a different hotel weeks later — has sparked criticism from those within the agency who say that such violence was inevitable.
One high-level DCFS administrator wrote to Supervisor Janice Hahn earlier this year to tell her that the situation was a “crisis” and “totally out of control.”
The children placed in the hotels are usually among those with some of the most significant untreated trauma and the gravest histories of violence.
Though group homes frequently have security and teams of staff members, children in the hotels have often been supervised by a single social worker, sometimes with scant knowledge of their backgrounds, little training to de-escalate potential violence and no on-site colleagues when things go wrong, according to DCFS policy documents and interviews with staff.
State law prohibits housing foster children for extended periods in places like the Biltmore that are not licensed to provide foster care. Over the years, state and county child welfare authorities have repeatedly promised to halt the practice of warehousing youths in unlicensed places that are unable to meet abused and neglected children’s need for safety, education and mental health services — yet it’s happening again.
The reason this time, according to government data and experts throughout the system, is the state’s most severe shortage of licensed foster homes in memory.
In 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown responded to complaints of substandard care in group foster homes by signing landmark legislation to move thousands of foster youths out of group facilities and into new foster family homes. The group homes now house a fraction of the youths they once did, but the additional foster parents to take them in have not materialized.
Until a solution is reached, DCFS Director Brandon Nichols said, the Biltmore is “the last resort” for social workers who can now find no other place for children experiencing some of the most vexing problems with drugs, sex trafficking, violence and mental health disorders.
“It is just an emergency and better than a kid sleeping on the street that night,” Nichols said.
His agency has 18,000 foster youths but fewer licensed beds. Licensed foster parents and group homes also have the right to reject any foster child before or after their arrival. In dire circumstances, social workers sometimes look for beds in homeless shelters, but those are scarce. The only places willing to accept anyone without exception are the unlicensed hotel rooms.
“We didn’t quite anticipate how difficult this was going to be,” Nichols said.
When the Biltmore opened, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago, covering half a city block. All those rooms were a big liability at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
In December 2021, Bobby Cagle, then the director of Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency, quietly struck a deal with the Biltmore’s operators to house foster youths and their social workers at the cost of $89 a night. The contract codified a practice of using hotel rooms to place foster children that had begun in late 2020. DCFS also has housed foster children at a Comfort Inn in Pomona and a Holiday Inn in Lancaster.
Since January 2022, the agency has placed at least 220 foster youths in hotels. Some stays were only a few days, while others lasted months.
The county social worker who reported being injured at the Biltmore said she rarely interacted with youths in her usual job, so she offered to occasionally staff the hotel. The Times is withholding her identity at her request because she is a victim of an alleged sexual assault.
Initially, she said, she found the hotel stunning. There were always tourists milling around the lobby. One time, she spotted a famous boxer. Another time, a crowd of costumed guests were attending nearby Comic Con.
“It’s a really nice hotel,” she said. “The feeling is beautiful.”
The once-exclusive hotel possesses a rich history as a venue for the Academy Awards in the 1930s and ’40s, where Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart received Oscars. They were surrounded by murals and frescoes by Giovanni Smeraldi, whose work also adorned the White House and the Vatican.
The suites were once used by President Kennedy, the Beatles and Al Capone. Hotel advertising still promises guests a five-star experience with “classic elegance steeped in Hollywood glamour.” The hotel bar was designed in the style of Spain’s royal hall where Queen Isabella first heard of Columbus’ discovery of America.
Until the January incident, the social worker said, none of the guests seemed aware there were foster children in the rooms next to them. She wasn’t sure how much the hotel staff knew. The youths were not allowed to order room service, she said. (The Biltmore declined to comment, referring questions to DCFS.)
Social workers were responsible for monitoring the children coming and going from the rooms and holding on to the hotel room keys. Foster youths would have to knock on the supervisor’s door when they returned to the hotel so they could get swiped into their room.
The social worker was sometimes paired with another who would stay with her in a room across the hall from a foster youth, but she was the only one on duty in January when she was assigned to look after the 16-year-old boy.
“I didn’t question it because I didn’t hear of any stories of him being physically assaultive with anybody,” said the social worker, who did not reveal any identifying information about the boy.
In reality, according to sources familiar with the boy’s history, he had been placed under psychiatric holds more than 20 times because authorities deemed him a physical threat to himself or others. The Times is withholding his name because he is a minor.
On Jan. 16, the boy awoke agitated after misplacing his video game controller, according to the social worker. She said she took him to breakfast and boxed his leftovers to bring back to her room while he left to attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.
Hours later, she said, the boy burst into her room, falsely accusing her of stealing $600 while he was away.
“He started yelling, ‘You have my stuff!’” she said
The social worker said the boy began pushing her. She phoned her supervisor, who agreed to call the police. The social worker then tried to use the hotel phone to call down to the lobby, but she said the boy disconnected the receiver from the phone and later tied it around her neck.
For the next 40 minutes or so, the social worker said, the teenager assaulted her physically and sexually. She said the youth groped her over her clothes and smothered her face with a towel.
“I thought somebody was going to save me,” she said, “but they didn’t.”
She said she escaped the room by promising to go get him money at an ATM. The two of them went down to the hotel lobby, where she waved down hotel staff.
The social worker shared photos with The Times taken a few days after the incident that show dark purple bruising around her eyes and yellowing bruises on her arms and legs.
She partly blamed DCFS for failing to warn her that the teenager she was supervising could be violent, leaving her vulnerable to an attack. But she said she’s also concerned about the larger child welfare system, which leaves nowhere to safely send youths with severe mental health needs who do not get placed in foster homes.
“They close the group homes, so we don’t have placements,” she said. “The idea was everybody should be in a foster home, but not all the kids can function in a foster home.”
Weeks after the alleged attack, Timothy Varvais, an assistant regional administrator based in the DCFS’ Lakewood office, wrote to Hahn, the county supervisor who represents the area.
Varvais wrote that he had just struggled to place another 16-year-old boy who was “gang affiliated, [had a] mental health diagnosis, uses drugs and has violent tendencies. He boasts of killing animals and tells social workers about a recent incident in which he raped a young lady. He has no remorse and doesn’t want any help.”
The challenge was to find him a place to live after his foster mother said he was no longer welcome in her home, but no licensed home would take him and even the agency’s emergency shelters were full. The only choice at 4 p.m. was to get a hotel room for the boy and station social workers nearby.
“This is an impossible task,” Varvais wrote. “Often staff have already worked a full day and now … I am asking them to work all night to watch a child. The risk to our staff is tremendous.”
Hahn‘s office did not respond to a request for comment. The other members of the Board of Supervisors did not respond or declined to be interviewed. Varvais did not respond to requests.
Three days after Varvais sent the letter, the department suffered another incident at a hotel sometimes used as an alternative to the Biltmore.
“A minor in foster care allegedly physically assaulted a social worker who was supervising him at a Lancaster hotel,” said DCFS spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales, who declined to identify the hotel or detail the social worker’s injuries.
Sources familiar with the youth alleged to have been involved said he suffers developmental disabilities that require a much higher level of care than the social worker at the hotel could provide.
Police arrested the boys suspected in both hotel incidents, and prosecutors charged them under the juvenile delinquency code. The proceedings are confidential because of their ages. The boys declined interview requests submitted via their attorneys.
When the county previously used unlicensed facilities to house foster children, state authorities stopped the practice. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political appointees have so far declined to do the same with the hotel stays. Newsom and his social services secretary, Kim Johnson, declined interview requests.
Nichols, the DCFS director, said the county has little choice but to use the hotels until it gains a licensed foster care site that won’t reject children.
Such a facility would require approval in Sacramento that lawmakers have been reluctant to grant out of fear that it might undermine the push to get children out of group homes and into family homes.
The one psychiatric facility that state lawmakers have approved for Los Angeles County would be able to reject particular children and is far from completed. Nichols noted that lawmakers gave regulators two years to develop licensing requirements before an operator could even apply for final approval. “I’m saying, ‘Hey, guys, is there any way we can speed that up,” he said.
Nichols said he is also organizing specialized mobile teams that can travel to group homes, shelters and hotels to help stabilize children suffering from the most difficult behaviors. As a result of the past incidents, the agency now requires at least two caseworkers for every foster child in hotels, as well as security guards nearby, he said.
“Until we develop a better solution … we’re still relying on hotels,” Nichols said. “They’re not going to go away immediately, but I think we need to use them better.”