There were plaudits all around last fall when a troubled teenager who spent 10 years in foster care was reunited with the father she had hardly known, thanks to what Los Angeles County supervisors described as a "groundbreaking effort" at family unification.
But the genesis of that heartwarming story is now the basis of a lawsuit alleging that Los Angeles County officials condemned Melinda Smith, now 17, to a decade of foster homes and institutions by failing to take the most basic steps to find her father.
Melinda's parents were not married when she was born in 1988, but her father, Thomas Marion Smith, agreed to pay child support in 1989. He saw Melinda often, he said, but when she was about 4, her mother moved and left no forwarding address. Two years later, in 1995, after the county had received two complaints of suspected child abuse, Melinda's mother turned the girl over to foster care officials.
Meanwhile, Thomas Smith continued to receive monthly bills and make support payments to the county for several years, while Melinda was -- unbeknownst to him -- being shuffled through a series of institutions and foster homes.
The Department of Children and Family Services -- required by law to use "due diligence" to locate a foster child's noncustodial parent -- never notified Smith that Melinda was in foster care and never gave him a chance to claim her, the lawsuit alleges.
The department listed Smith's whereabouts as unknown in court documents filed a decade ago, even though department records indicate that Melinda's caseworker knew that Smith was paying child support through a separate county agency and his address was on file there.
"He's a registered voter with a valid driver's license and an open child support case," said his attorney, L. Wallace Pate. "All they had to do, at any time during those 10 years, was pick up the phone and ask the L.A. County Child Support Services Department, 'Do you have a contact on this man?' "
Ultimately, Smith was located last spring by retired social worker Peggy Crist, who was brought in to help the Department of Children and Family Services launch a program to find permanent placements for teenagers who had spent years in foster care.
After meeting Melinda -- who told Crist "the most important thing she could think of ... was that she wanted to find her father" -- it took the social worker one day to find Thomas Smith, who was living with his wife in a comfortable two-bedroom home in Pine Valley, east of San Diego.
Last July, the father and daughter saw each other for the first time in more than 10 years. In November, Melinda left foster care and moved into her father's home.
Their reunion was celebrated at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting Sept. 13, when board Chairman Mike Antonovich praised Crist for saving a child from graduating from foster care at 18 with no support system in place.
"Now that child will have an opportunity for education, a loving family environment and will become a productive citizen," Antonovich said.
But the promise of a new family cannot undo the damage of 10 years in foster care, said Pate, who filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking unspecified damages against Los Angeles County, the social workers who handled Melinda's case and the private agency that provides attorneys for children in foster care.
If proper procedures had been followed, the lawsuit contends, Melinda would have been placed in her father's custody after her mother relinquished her, rather than languishing in foster care.
Instead, social workers misled Melinda and family court officials by portraying Smith as a "deadbeat dad," the lawsuit said, even though they knew he was paying child support and had received "no notice that his daughter was being detained."
Melinda grew up in seven different foster care placements. For five years, beginning at the age of 7, she lived in a residential treatment center alongside older children convicted of criminal activity because social workers decided her emotional issues ruled out placement with foster parents.
Agency records cited in the lawsuit detail a litany of behavior problems: She threw toys, punched windows and walls, and was frequently restrained by staff members when her tantrums escalated into kicking and biting attacks.
When Melinda was 8, her social worker reported that she refused to speak, suffered from extreme depression and was so "oppositional and defiant" that she was "not appropriate for adoptive placement."
"She feels hopeless and helpless, as if the world is against her," the social worker noted. She was ordered to take Prozac and remained on the medication -- at steadily increasing doses -- for more than seven years.
The lawsuit says social workers knew that Melinda was deteriorating in the county's custody, care and supervision, yet insisted that her father be stricken from Melinda's case plan.
The father and daughter were deprived of their constitutional rights by county officials' deception, incompetence and flagrant disregard of laws intended to safeguard family ties, Pate said.
Melinda "remained warehoused in defendant's custody against her will, in a restrictive environment on trumped-up grounds and suffered severe deterioration, isolation, depression and loss of ... her father's care, nurture and companionship," the lawsuit contends.
"What would Melinda's life have been like if she'd had the chance to know her father, who looked for her, loves her and wanted to know her?" Pate asked. "For the county to pat itself on the back for finally getting them together after all these years ... that's like freeing the slaves, then saying 'Oh, well.' "
Pate would not allow the father or daughter to be interviewed. Nor would county officials comment on the case because litigation is pending.
But Louise Grasmehr, director of public affairs for the Department of Children and Family Services, praised the program that reunited Melinda and her father, saying that it has the potential to free hundreds of children from foster care. In the year the program has been in place, 50 children have been reunited with their parents, 80 more are in the process of being adopted by relatives and almost 100 have acquired legal guardians.
Child welfare consultant Kevin Campbell, who trained Crist for the program last summer, said Los Angeles came late to the "family finding" movement but has recently demonstrated a strong commitment to connecting foster children with missing family members.
Until recently, little was done to find relatives of unclaimed foster children because the search process was difficult and tedious, social workers were untrained and overworked, and there was an inherent bias against family members of children in foster care.
There was a presumption that the father was probably unsuitable or uninterested, Campbell said. "The attitude has been 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.' If one parent has problems, the other relatives are probably not worth searching for."
But research shows that children almost always fare better with relatives than in long-term foster care. And technological advances now make locating missing family members easy and inexpensive, he said.
Even children who remain in foster care benefit from contact with family members, Campbell said. Residential mental health therapy often fails if "while they are in that institution, children are not feeling love and affection from somebody out of that institution," said Campbell, who is familiar with Melinda's case. "What may have happened with [Melinda], she may have gone a decade without feeling that."
Campbell, who works with child welfare agencies around the country, said homes with willing relatives have been found for more than three-quarters of the children whose cases he has reviewed. The average successful search takes less than six hours.
Crist initiated her search May 16, 2005. By May 17, she had Thomas Smith's current address, along with his addresses for the last 15 years, the lawsuit said.
She enlisted a San Diego social worker to visit Smith, who called Crist and said that he had tried unsuccessfully to find his daughter for years. All that time, he said, he thought she was living with her mother.