Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors passed a 5-year, $62-million plan Tuesday to improve mental health services, taking a step toward fulfilling a 5-year-old settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of children in foster care.
Advocates for foster children hope the plan will improve access to mental health care, a chief objective of a 2003 settlement reached after allegations of serious shortfalls in the screening and treatment of children in the county’s foster care system.
But even under the plan approved in a unanimous vote by the supervisors, the county may still fall short of the terms it agreed to in the so-called Katie A. class-action suit, named for one of five plaintiffs.
The suit alleged that for years the county relied chiefly on restrictive group homes and psychiatric hospitals to treat children with serious psychiatric, emotional or behavioral problems, rather than trying to keep them with their families.
Although the county admitted no wrongdoing, it agreed to several changes intended to keep children out of foster care in part by ensuring that mental health services be provided to those in jeopardy of entering it.
Since then, county officials have made only incremental progress toward those promises, according to advocates and county officials alike.
Judy Johnson, an attorney who represents foster children, cited one of her clients, 14-year-old Jocelyn B., as an example of the lack of change.
After spending years in foster care, the girl, who has a history of mental health problems, was placed with her father last year. But Johnson said the Department of Children and Family Services failed to provide promised mental health services and because of severe tantrums, the girl was sent to a group home. Even in that facility, Johnson said, Jocelyn went without sufficient mental health services and has spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
“It can be very dispiriting and depressing,” Johnson said.
The plan approved by supervisors Tuesday would increase availability of services that might make it possible for Jocelyn and other children to stay in their homes or in home-like settings. The move comes as Children and Family Services has increased its collaboration with other departments, including mental health and health services, in the last year under the direction of William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, and his deputy, Miguel Santana.
“This is an appropriate and long overdue step. All the way around, it’s good news for the children we serve,” said Patricia S. Ploehn, children and family services director. “This is a piece of a larger transformation in Los Angeles County. We have been focusing on reducing the number of children in care and the time in care, and improving services while they are in care.”
The plan calls for social workers to do basic mental health screenings by March 2009 for the 156,000 cases that are investigated in the field each year. The screenings have been resisted by the union representing social workers.
“We agree that these kids need mental health services, but why does this fall to the social worker?” asked Tony Castro, a social worker in Commerce, where the average caseload is 30, far more than twice the 12 recommended by experts. “The department says it knows that we are overworked, but they still tell us to do this and to do that.”
Castro, an executive board member of Service Employees International Union 721, said the union will push for further negotiations before implementing the screening.
In addition, the department said that by next year, it hopes to conduct comprehensive assessments and create treatment plans for at least 65% of the 11,000 children detained annually by next year. Officials acknowledged that such assessments currently are not completed in time for court hearings that decide children’s placement and access to services.