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County Pays $300,000 in Adoption Lawsuit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took the Rev. Wayne Coombs less than two years to force two foreign governments and the U.S. State Department to allow him to arrange the adoption of 43 Romanian orphans by American couples.

But it took Coombs and his wife seven years and more than $60,000 in legal expenses to adopt a single baby in his hometown, where he had to deal with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

The family’s problems with the department, Coombs alleged in a lawsuit against the county, occurred because he and his wife, Janice, are white and their son, Adam, is part black.

Last week, the county Board of Supervisors quietly voted behind closed doors to settle out of court with the Coombses and to pay them $300,000 as compensation for the “pain, suffering, embarrassment and humiliation” the Rancho Palos Verdes couple say they suffered during the process. The money also will help pay for counseling for Adam, now 8, and his older sister, Ebony, whom the Coombses later adopted.

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In a legal memo relied upon by the board, Assistant County Counsel S. Robert Ambrose said that while black social workers denied using race as a criterion in the Coombs case, two investigations by the county supported the Coombses’ allegations.

In particular, Ambrose cited an investigation by a member of the independent Children’s Services Commission, who found that Department of Children and Family Services workers “improperly impeded” the Coombses’ efforts to adopt Adam based “solely” on the issue of race, and that the department “had a pattern of discrimination in this regard.”

“It is a violation of federal civil rights for a public employee to discriminate against a person based upon his or her racial background,” Ambrose wrote in urging the settlement.

“In addition,” he cautioned, “a public entity may be liable for a federal civil rights violation if it is shown that the entity had a policy, custom, or practice that was discriminatory.”

Ambrose also said a department caseworker--unidentified in the memo--cited her “alleged reliance on her supervisor’s admonition that Mr. and Mrs. [Coombs] could not adopt racially mixed children.”

Finally, the county lawyer wrote, “the evidence is undisputed that Adam and Ebony . . . suffered emotionally as a result of being removed from [the Coombses’] home on multiple occasions.”

To Coombs, the legal and financial settlement his family secured makes “a happy-ending story.”

“But, by God, they cannot do what they did to us to anyone else,” he said Wednesday.

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According to court documents and interviews, young Adam was treated like a human Ping-Pong ball during seven years of legal wrangling by a county bureaucracy that first placed him with the Coombses and then jerked him away and gave him back to his drug-addicted, unmarried birth mother three times.

The issue of interracial adoptions is an explosive one. The influential National Assn. of Black Social Workers, for instance, has called the adoption of African American children by white couples cultural “genocide.”

Phasing Out Race as Adoption Factor

But in recent years, the state and federal government have moved to specifically prohibit using race as a factor in adoptions. Those policies are of particular importance in Los Angeles, many child welfare experts say, because more than 40% of the 75,000 children in the county’s care are black, and they are three times as likely to remain in long-term foster care as Latino or white children.

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The two county investigations prompted by the Coombs case agreed with outside experts, such as Kirsten Albrecht of the TransRacial Adoption Group, saying white prospective parents in Los Angeles County often are discouraged from adopting black or biracial children.

Adam, in fact, is fortunate compared to some children, such as 20-month-old Destiny.

She was taken away from foster parents who wanted to adopt her in December 1995, and returned to a mother who had already had several children taken from her custody for their safety. One of Destiny’s siblings had died under suspicious circumstances three years earlier, according to prosecutors familiar with her case.

Within months, Destiny, too, was dead. Her birth parents were convicted of second-degree manslaughter last summer. “The baby,” prosecutor Donna Willis said, “was severely beaten from head to toe, possibly sexually assaulted, and tortured with pins or needles.”

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In the Coombses’ suit, the couple alleged that black social workers from the county children’s department were determined to prevent them from adopting Adam because of the racial difference.

They also allege that the social workers were so intent on allowing Adam’s natural mother to keep him that they intentionally ignored evidence that she was a drug-addicted prostitute who repeatedly jeopardized the safety of Adam and his three brothers and sisters, all of whom have been in county custody at one time or another.

At least one black social worker withheld that evidence from judges who were deciding whether Adam should stay with the Coombses or be returned to his mother.

According to her sworn deposition, social worker Doris Brown never told the judge who was deciding Adam’s fate in 1994 about his mother’s 1991 conviction on prostitution charges, her then-recent arrest in Virginia on check-kiting charges, or even her arrest on additional prostitution charges just weeks before the judge was to make his ruling.

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Neither Brown nor her attorney could be reached for comment.

Brown recommended that Adam be returned to his mother without ever investigating statements made by several dozen witnesses provided by the Coombses, including a police officer and a doctor. They said Adam and his brothers and sisters were living in filthy conditions, that they were unsupervised by their mother for substantial periods of time, that there was little or no food in the home, and that Adam had two black eyes when he visited the Coombses.

What’s more, the witnesses said, the mother was suspected by social workers in Virginia of using welfare money to buy drugs when she moved the family there in 1993, and of using crack cocaine, leaving her children unattended and not enrolling them in school.

Brown testified that she didn’t think such witnesses “were important.”

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She did not speak with an apartment manager and others who reported that the children were wandering their Rancho Palos Verdes apartment complex “asking for food and money.”

And Brown never talked to school officials to follow up on the Coombses’ allegations that the mother had never enrolled her children in school, or that she had been evicted from her last apartment because she failed to supervise or care for her children.

Among the reasons for her eviction: The mother had left the children unattended in the swimming pool, even though they couldn’t swim, the Coombses allege.

Custody Fight Waged Over Long Period

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Because Brown left all of that out of her report, the judge awarded custody of Adam to his birth mother. He reversed himself later, but only after being confronted with evidence of the mother’s alleged criminal behavior.

In all, social workers returned Adam to his mother three times and tried unsuccessfully to do so a fourth time, county documents show. Wayne Coombs fought the county at every turn, even as he was enlisting the aid of senators, congressman and even the White House to break through the red tape in Romania and other nations to rescue abandoned children there.

County officials would not say whether Brown was ever disciplined for her handling of the Coombs case. She still works for the department as a social worker.

County lawyers recommended the $300,000 settlement, saying that, because two investigations supported the Coombses’ contentions, a jury might award the couple more than $1.7 million if the case went to trial.

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One of those investigations was conducted at the behest of county Supervisor Mike Antonovich. It was at his request that Children’s Services Commissioner Hal Brown examined the case and concluded that the Coombses were deprived of the custody of Adam for years simply because of their race.

Peter Digre, director of the children’s department, would not comment on the facts of the Coombs case, but said such “heroic” efforts to keep children with their birth parents have been replaced by an emphasis on the children’s safety.

Even so, Los Angeles County adoptions have risen from fewer than 300 in 1989 to more than 1,200 by 1997 and are on a course to hit 3,000 this year, Digre said.

He has acknowledged continuing problems, and said his top priority is convincing the Board of Supervisors to give him $800,000 to hire 100 adoption workers on top of the 200 he already has.

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Adoptions workers say they are being overwhelmed.

“It is an absolute scandal, a mess,” said adoption worker Richard Yanez, adding that almost all caseworkers are over the legal limit on how many cases they should have.

“It is unreal to try to do this,” he said. “You can’t guarantee the safety of the children. It’s all putting out fires, and emergencies.”

Problems Are Many in Adoption System

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Child welfare experts say understaffing is only one of many problems in the county’s adoption process. A huge backlog of cases, long delays in getting adoptions and a lack of attention to placing siblings together in adoptive homes are just a few, according to nonprofit child-welfare lawyer Jo Kaplan and other experts.

In the Coombs case, county social workers began making serious mistakes from the very beginning--and some of them involved not only Adam’s birth mother, but also the Coombses, according to case records.

Adam became a temporary ward of the county at birth when his mother had to stay in the hospital for a cocaine problem that had continued throughout her pregnancy.

The infant was given to his alleged father, who refused to take responsibility for him, according to legal documents that also say the mother had four other children by three different men.

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Adam’s original caseworker, Susan Day--who is white--worshiped at Coombs’ church in Rancho Palos Verdes, the Lunada Bay Christian Fellowship, which Coombs and his wife used to further their work rescuing children in war-torn areas throughout the world and finding homes for them.

The Coombses decided to lead by example, and expressed an interest in becoming foster parents on top of raising two teenagers of their own.

So the social worker placed Adam with the Coombses in January 1990, when he was 6 weeks old, even though they did not have the required certification or license needed to become foster parents, county legal documents show.

The Coombses also were never fingerprinted, never submitted to criminal background checks and their home was never investigated for safety--breaking three more of the cardinal requirements within the foster care system. Day, who no longer works for the county, could not be reached for comment.

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Saying they are concerned about the wider implications of such cases, the Board of Supervisors has directed the auditor-controller’s office to conduct a full-scale management review of the children’s department. Antonovich said that an overhaul of the adoptions program is his most pressing concern.

Antonovich said the Coombs case and others like it underscore the problems that occur when too much emphasis is placed on reuniting children with parents at the expense of providing them with stable adoptive homes. As a result, he said, they suffer from repeated and long-term institutionalization in foster care.

As the supervisors decide whether to revamp the adoption system, things are returning to normal at the Coombs house, where they waited Wednesday with Adam and Ebony for a social worker to visit. The worker was Coombses because the Coombses are now planning to bring Adam’s 14-year-old brother into their home as a foster child.

During the years when he was trundled back and forth, Adam said, “I didn’t really know what was going on. I felt sad. It was a little scary.”

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But, his face brightening, he added, “I’m very glad things ended up how they ended up. They’re nice parents. My sister thinks they’re fabulous, and so do I.”


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