Friday, July 19, 2002
Class Action Accuses County of Denying Children Mental Health, Family Preservation Services
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Los Angeles County’s failure to address the mental health problems of foster children is the biggest stumbling block to reunifying families or facilitating adoption, and children will continue to be injured unless the problem is corrected quickly, plaintiffs said yesterday in a federal class-action suit against the county and the state.
The 25-page complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf five children in foster care and their court-appointed guardians. It seeks to improve the mental health services provided to foster children throughout the county, increase the services provided to families to prevent children being taken out of their homes and put an end to the multiple foster placements.
The suit was brought by the ACLU, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the Youth Law Center, Protection and Advocacy, Inc., the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and the law firm of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe.
“Los Angeles is a system that leaves nearly every child behind,” ACLU of Southern California legal director Mark Rosenbaum said.
The county, which is charged with the care of more than 50,000 children, consistently removes children from their homes and puts them into foster care rather than providing mental health and family preservation services that could keep the family together, Rosenbaum said. The county relies too heavily on institutionalization and “emergency” shelters like MacLaren Children’s Center rather than adequately assessing a child’s mental health and family needs, Rosenbaum said.
He also charged that the county often does not provide necessary mental health services to children already in foster care and routinely moves children around from place to place within the system, which is harmful to emotional and educational ties.
As many as 85 percent of foster care children suffer from “significant” mental health problems and many of those problems are compounded by the county’s practice of fitting children into the next available slot rather than giving them the assistance they need, Rosenbaum said.
“These kids don’t come in like this,” he said.
Robert Kaiffie, a 20-year-old man who was recently “aged out” of the county’s foster care system, told reporters gathered at a morning news conference that he doesn’t even know who he is since he had to completely reinvent himself every time he was moved to a new home.
Kaiffie was placed at MacClaren Children’s Center several different times, where he said the staff would seek to belittle and aggravate the children there to point where they feel they have to act out.
He said one of the staff members at the center told him, “Well, at least I get to go home to my family tonight.”
Katie A., one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has been moved 37 times in her 10 years in the foster care system, including 19 stays at eight different psychiatric hospitals and seven stints at MacLaren, according to the complaint. She has never received the necessary mental health services she needs, her court appointed guardian Michael Ludin said.
Sharon Harper, chief deputy of the county’s Chief Administrative Office, said there has been a concerted effort to improve MacLaren, including additional training for staff.
“We’re trying to improve MacLaren and I think we’ve made some strides to improve it,” Harper said.
Ira Burnim, legal director for the Washington D.C-based Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said a county foster care system charged with helping children has instead failed them by neglecting to provide the services they need to succeed in school and find stability in a home.
“Without appropriate services, children with mental disabilities bounce between foster home placements and group homes,” Burnim said. “Then, when their worsening mental conditions render them ‘unplaceable,’ they are abandoned to languish in institutional settings.”
The county does not make therapeutic foster care, which is designed for more challenging children and provides families and children with the supportive services, available to foster children — even though the concept is the national norm, Burnim said.
Plaintiffs lawyers said it costs taxpayers $757 a day per child at MacLaren—more than $276,000 per year—but they argue the county is spending the money in on the wrong places.
Lew Hollman, the executive director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, said it is “shameful” that the county knows what needs to be done for these children and still doesn’t take care of them.
“The treatment that the most vulnerable people in our society receive has been a shameful legacy for decades,” Hollman said.
The county can receive funding through Medi-Cal, through the early and periodic screening, diagnosis and treatment program, and other federal programs, Hollman said.
“No more county money is needed,” he said.
Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Dependency Court Legal Services, which represents the vast majority of children in the county’s foster care system, told the MetNews her organization is watching the suit “very closely and with great interest.”
DCLS may become involved in the suit later by becoming an intervening party or by filing an amicus brief, but Krinsky said she believes the interests of their clients are being served by the suing parties.
“Sometimes litigation isn’t a bad thing because it can prompt reform and motivate everyone to move forward with reform,” Krinsky said.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he expects good things to come out of the suit, adding that the recent change of leadership for the Department of Children and Family Services will also improve the county’s foster care system
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to appoint Marjorie Kelly as acting director of the Department of Children and Family Services to replace departing director Anita Bock.
Antonovich said Kelly’s leadership experience and strong managerial background will help her “provide the compass to lead the department out of Hades.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company