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State Loses Foster Children Lawsuit

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Times Staff Writer

A federal judge in Los Angeles has ordered California to provide mental health services that could keep thousands of foster children out of institutions.

The order comes in a 3-year-old class-action lawsuit challenging the practice of sending foster children to group homes or hospitals for mental health care. Advocates for foster children say appropriate mental health services could keep them in homes and communities.

There are more than 80,000 children in foster care in California. Of those, 4,500 are in group homes, and many of them might be eligible to return to family settings under the terms of the court order.

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Robert Newman, a lawyer with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which sought the preliminary injunction, said the order would help “thousands of children who might have been removed from their homes. They can live at home or in their communities in a less-restrictive facility.”

Mental health care is an especially important issue for foster children, who are removed from their biological relatives typically for abuse or neglect, Newman and other advocates contend. Some national studies report that 70% to 84% of them experience a mental health problem.

U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz ruled Tuesday that California must use its federal Medicaid funds to pay for two forms of mental health treatment: “wraparound services” and “therapeutic foster care.” Both allow a child to remain at home or with foster parents while family members and professionals work together to address the child’s specific needs.

The state had opposed using its Medicaid funds, arguing that the treatment was ill-defined and of questionable medical necessity.

Nevertheless, Matz wrote that wraparound treatment and therapeutic foster care are services that legitimately qualify for Medicaid funds. He cited studies showing the effectiveness of both methods and noted that numerous other states already use Medicaid funds to pay for them.

Advocates contend those treatment approaches would save the state money by avoiding the higher costs of hospitalization or group home care.

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Wraparound services are delivered by a team composed of the child, family and government agents, who collaborate on treatment. In therapeutic foster care, children are placed with foster parents trained to oversee therapy.

Matz ordered the state departments of Health Services and Social Services to begin funding the treatment within 120 days.

The state is required to meet with the plaintiffs to devise an action plan and to decide whether the court should appoint a special master to monitor the order. The state and plaintiffs must file a status report on their progress in 70 days.

The state can appeal the ruling. California Department of Health Services spokeswoman Lea Brooks said, “We are reviewing the decision.”

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