A federal judge has ordered Los Angeles County to improve mental health services for children in its foster care system and move faster to comply with reforms agreed upon in a past federal agreement.
The court finding, filed this week, validates the conclusions of an independent panel of experts that determined in August 2005 that the county wasn’t offering adequate mental health services to foster children still living with their families and did not have a comprehensive plan to help them.
Panel members monitor the county’s 2003 federal settlement to improve mental health services for foster children.
“It’s an important case for the kids of Los Angeles County,” said Kimberly Lewis, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, who has been closely involved with the case. It is “not a small number of children that would be impacted by this.”
The order this week will require county officials to screen all kids in the foster system, including those who still live at home; of the county’s 40,000 foster children, 23,000 live in foster homes.
It’s important to treat children with mental health problems at home or in a homelike environment to keep them out of the foster system, Lewis said.
The settlement sprang from a class-action lawsuit by representatives of five children who said they received substandard care.
County officials say they are making progress.
The major point of contention is “the speed with which it’s reasonable to proceed in the expansion of the specialized services,” said Marvin Southard, director of the mental health department.
“In general, I think we have agreed with the panel that foster care kids need a wide array of support,” Southard said. “We’ve come a long way in developing a plan that actually delivers these services.... We’re trying to go as fast as we can.”
Over the last few years, “the department has worked with the department of mental health to further improve its mental health service to children,” said Louise Grasmehr, spokeswoman for the county Department of Children and Family Services.
Grasmehr cited the establishment of close to 10 hubs throughout the county that medically and psychologically evaluate children entering foster care.