Saturday, March 14, 2009

LA County Probation Dept. mistakenly bills foster parents

L.A. County studying how others bill for detained youths
Hennessy-Fiske, Molly. Los Angeles Time, March 12, 2009.

After coming under criticism for billing foster parents and those of limited means, the Probation Department is gathering information on what other counties are doing.

Los Angeles County probation officials say they are now studying how other counties recover juvenile detention costs, after admitting they mistakenly billed parents for days when youths were held in probation camps and halls.

By law, California counties can bill parents and legal guardians for some daily costs of detaining youths, but only those whose parents can afford to pay. Last year, more than 20,000 youths were admitted to probation camps and halls, and L.A. County billed parents a daily charge of $11.94 for camps, $23.63 for halls.

Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor declared a moratorium on billing Feb. 13 after The Times and children's advocates raised questions about improper billing.

"We're looking at everything other counties are doing. A lot of what we're finding is that other counties are doing what we're doing," Taylor said. "Out of 20,000 minors, there will be errors, and we're looking at ways to prevent that."

Taylor had been scheduled to meet behind closed doors with county administrators Wednesday to discuss the moratorium and federal monitoring of probation camps. However, after The Times and children's advocate groups questioned why the meeting was to be closed to the public, administrators postponed the session, which could be held as soon as next Wednesday.

Last week, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky questioned why the county spent $12,800 hiring private lawyers to recover $1,004 from Sally Stokes, a disabled Compton grandmother. That bill was dismissed days later by a juvenile court referee who found Stokes unable to pay.

County lawyers promised to tell Yaroslavsky how much they have spent trying to collect probation debts but had yet to report as of Wednesday. Gordon W. Trask, principal deputy county counsel, said the Stokes case was "the only one of its kind."

Excluding legal costs, last year the Probation Department spent nearly $900,000 to collect just 11% of what parents owed, about $2.6 million.

The department was not supposed to bill foster parents, including relatives or "kin care" foster parents, because the state does not hold them financially responsible for the children they take in. The state reimburses foster parents and kin-care providers for child-care expenses but stops payment for children who are detained.

Because the department does not track which youths in its system are foster children, it is not clear how many foster parents were improperly billed, Taylor said. At least 111 foster youths were detained last year, according to the county's Department of Children and Family Services.

"We're not supposed to bill them, but I know we have," Taylor said.

Among those mistakenly billed was the president of the L.A. County Resource Families Coordinating Council and the California State Care Providers Assn., a group of about 800 foster caregivers.

Aubrey Manuel, 50, of South Los Angeles, a retired Bank of America staffer, said he and other foster parents have fought probation bills for years.

"It just makes sense that you should not be charging foster parents for these children," said Manuel, who is currently fostering six boys, half of whom are on probation. "Foster parents are people who are stepping up to the plate saying we'll help with this problem we have in society."

Taylor said he realized that billing foster parents was counterproductive and might lead people to reconsider taking children in. He said he was reviewing ways to improve the efficiency of billing, such as gathering information about parents when a youth is admitted to detention or at initial court hearings.

Probation officials in other counties with large numbers of youths in detention said they do more to ensure that parents understand their rights and that foster parents are not mistakenly billed.

"You don't want to grind somebody to the point where they say forget it," said Melanie Markley, Ventura County's chief deputy probation officer.

Ventura County screens parents when youths are admitted to detention and at court hearings, notifying them of their right to appeal the bills in writing. Orange and Sacramento county probation officials include a breakdown of charges with probation bills and information about parents' rights.

In San Diego County, juvenile court judges determine who is financially responsible for probation youths, ensure that foster and other parents are not mistakenly billed and that those who are billed understand what they owe, said Derryl Acosta, a probation spokesman. Alameda County probation officials station financial evaluators across from juvenile court so they can find needy parents quickly.

By law, counties must take into account parents' income and "necessary obligations," but so far, Los Angeles' Probation Department has used a 2003-04 income scale to decide how much parents can afford to pay, without allowing for expenses.

By contrast, Santa Clara County takes into account parents' monthly housing, utilities, food, clothing and transportation expenses. Orange County does not bill the disabled, terminally ill, mentally ill and those who owe child support or federal tax debts.

Most counties bill legal guardians and adoptive parents, but some make exceptions. Sacramento County bills only legal guardians who take in children before they turn 10. San Bernardino County waives probation bills for legal guardians.

"Our reasoning is that we do not want to deter those who are volunteering to assist juveniles by making them financially responsible for these types of bills," said Scott Frymire, the county's chief deputy probation administrator.

In Los Angeles, Taylor said he stands by billing adoptive parents and legal guardians, including relatives.

"Otherwise, some parents dump them on the system," Taylor said. "I know it sounds cruel, but if they adopted them, that child is their responsibility, just like a natural child."

Kim McGill of the nonprofit Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition, disagreed. If parents are dumping children on the system, she said, the department should send caseworkers to their homes, not bills.

"A caseworker makes a lot more difference than threatening parents," McGill said.

Counties are required by law to recoup medical costs from probation youth with private medical insurance, but L.A. County has not done so, probation and health services officials said.The county has not tracked which probation youths have medical insurance, but after supervisors' staff inquired last month, probation and health services officials began investigating to see how much money the county could save, Taylor said. Medical costs account for about 80% of daily charges in the halls and 38% of daily charges in the camps, according to probation records.

Taylor has not said when the billing moratorium will end but has submitted a proposal to increase the daily charges to parents to $14.96 for youths sent to juvenile camps, $29.28 for those held in juvenile halls.

Before billing resumes, parents want an independent task force to review the system.

"This is a system that has a lot of flaws in it," said Elizabeth Calvin, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles. "This cannot be fixed piecemeal."

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