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The state of LA's foster care system, and one couple's journey to become parents

Clare Norris and Marcus Bellringer, a couple in the process of qualifying as foster carers in L.A.
Clare Norris and Marcus Bellringer, a couple in the process of qualifying as foster carers in L.A.
Joanne Griffith / KPCC

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Right now there are more than 400,000 children across the country in the foster care system. 

Los Angeles has the second largest child welfare program in the country, after New York City, with about 36,000 children in the county's care.

Philip Browning, the Director of the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) for L.A. County says that most referrals to DCFS come through a 24-hour hotline manned by hundreds of social workers.

"If a worker at our hotline believes there's an immediate need then someone will go out immediately. If not, it might be over a five or 10 day period," Browning says.

Once the social worker arrives at the home, Browning says, they'll talk with whoever is there and make a decision about whether the child should be left there, usually with their biological parents, or whether they should be removed.

If it's determined that the child needs to be removed from the household, DCFS will first try to place them with a relative or family friend who the child knows who's able to pass a criminal background check. If that's not possible, the child will be taken to a DCFS facility for about 24 hours until another relative or foster parent is found.

For couples looking to become foster carers or adoptive parents, like Clare Norris and Marcus Bellringer, the first step is a training program and a background investigation.

Norris says she knew she wanted to adopt from the time she was a teenager.

"I thought that adding to the overpopulated world seemed unnecessary," she says, "and that offering my home to someone in need was a better use of my resources."

While Norris and Bellringer are now far along in the process of qualifying as foster carers, they say they found the system so problematic and the training so unhelpful that they almost scrapped their foster care plans. But a conversation with a social worker changed their minds.

"There was something that she said that inspired us, I think, to stay. And that's when she started articulating the need," Bellringer says.

Norris adds, "She was talking about the impact on the parent and that sometimes people underestimate what they can handle, but that she's seen people really transformed by this whole process. And that stood out to me a lot."

L.A. County DCFS Director Philip Browning says he regrets that Clare and Marcus's experience has been "less than what is desirable," and appreciates their feedback about how to improve the system.

"We have thousands of social workers everyday who come into this profession, not for the money, I can assure you, but to try to make a difference," Browning says. "And they really do need options such as Marcus and Clare."