Probation’s aggressive bills probed


A year ago, Michael Bowler took in 16-year-old twins he met while volunteering at a Los Angeles County probation hall.

Bowler, a 51-year-old special education teacher who volunteered through the Catholic Church, thought he could help the county as well as Edward and Louis Hanson by giving them a home.

Instead of thanking Bowler, the county billed him nearly $10,000.

When the bill arrived in October, Bowler studied it, confused. The county was charging him for Edward’s detention before the brothers even came to live with him.


Bowler called a phone number on the bill. No one called him back. By November, the bills hadn’t stopped and county officials had placed a lien on Bowler’s Chatsworth home.

“It makes me wonder, how often does this happen?” Bowler said. “Do foster parents get billed who take a child in? Because that shouldn’t be. I was doing the county a favor by taking these children in.”

On Friday, after inquiries by The Times about their billing practices, Los Angeles County probation officials imposed a temporary moratorium on fees charged to parents and guardians for each day a youth spends in county detention.

“We’re not going to collect any money or send out any letters until we have a chance to examine how we do this,” Probation Department Chief Robert Taylor said.

A Times investigation of those charges found that thousands billed told probation officials they could not afford to pay. Last year, more than 8,100 people who failed to pay bills were scheduled to meet with financial evaluators. Few got relief. Only 198 had fees waived, including 57 on public assistance, county records show.

Until Friday, Los Angeles County charged $11.94 a day for probation camps and $23.63 a day for juvenile halls. That is a fraction of the $100 to $200 cost per day of detaining the 20,000 youths who enter the county’s 19 camps and three halls each year.


Despite increasingly aggressive billing policies, only $2.6 million of the $23.6 million billed last year was recovered. To recover even that small portion, the county spent $812,000 on a five-person probation fee collections office and $56,000 on an Austin, Texas-based collections agency.

Bowler was one of the few to win his battle. He had been billed even though the boys remained wards of the county when they came to live with him. After he appealed to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Probation Department canceled his bill. Bowler still had to drive to the county courthouse in Norwalk to pay a $14 fee before the county would remove the lien from his home.

His case is among those that raised serious questions about whom the Probation Department pursues and the methods it uses to do so, including seizing state tax returns, putting liens on property, and, in some cases, garnishing wages.

Taylor said Friday that he stands behind billing families. Without financial accountability, he and some county supervisors say, parents would be more prone to dump wards on the juvenile justice system.

But after supervisors’ aides questioned whether some of the billing was legal -- questions asked after The Times cited specific cases to supervisors earlier this week -- Taylor said he decided to review department practices.

Critics of the policy argue that it strains families just when they most need support: when the youth returns home.


“The county does not appear to have made the effort to discern who can afford to pay and who cannot,” Yaroslavsky said. “There ought to be a high level of concern about what we’re doing.”

In numerous instances, The Times has found, the county went after grandparents, extended family members and even foster parents who had taken in troubled children. Although state law requires that counties charge only those who can afford to pay, those aggressively pursued include:

* A homeless mother living in a downtown L.A. shelter.

* A disabled North Hollywood grandmother in her 70s who was billed $4,700 for her 17-year-old grandson, one of three grandchildren she has taken in.

* A 63-year-old North Hollywood woman laid off from her accounting job last year and working part-time for minimum wage at Sears who was billed $3,000 for her 17-year-old grandson.

* A stay-at-home mother of three in Compton, whose husband earns about $14,400 a year at a metal factory, who was billed $2,600 for her 17-year-old son.

* A disabled postal worker in Granada Hills with three children who was billed $1,200 for the 17-year-old nephew he had adopted.


“We’re not criminals,” said 52-year-old postal worker Moises Lizarraga. “You’re already down and out and going through what you’re going through. How is paying money going to help? How is that going to keep you engaged? Them addressing our concerns would keep us engaged.”

A spokesman for Don Knabe, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the panel is investigating the examples of aggressively pursued cases.

“We want to know what happened in each of those cases to find out if there is a systematic problem of them not following the guidelines,” spokesman David Sommers said. “We have a problem with that, and we want some answers from the department.”

Probation spokeswoman Kerri Webb declined to explain the department’s billing rationale in specific cases, citing state confidentiality laws.

The policy of charging parents and guardians is unusual for states with large juvenile justice populations. Of the 10 states with the most youths in detention, several do not charge parents such fees, including Texas and New York.

California counties, however, have been allowed to bill for two decades. Those debts -- which often come on top of Juvenile Court fees and restitution -- can be pursued for years.


The law was never intended to allow counties to charge needy families, said David Steinhart, juvenile justice program director at Commonweal, a research institute in Bolinas, Calif., who helped craft the original legislation.

“Although it sounds like a tough-guy law to make families pay, it actually was meant to prevent probation from becoming a baby-sitting service,” Steinhart said. “We put in a lot of outs -- it was based on ability to pay, there were hardship exclusions. We didn’t want it to work disproportionately against poor people and minorities.”

But that is what appears to be happening.

Clay Hollopeter, president of the county Probation Commission, said the commission has been investigating parent complaints and was “aghast to find out these families were going into debt and having liens put against their homes.”

“You have to give some leniency to families that are poor, particularly now with the economy being the way it is and people out of work,” he said.

Elizabeth Calvin, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles, confronted Taylor and supervisors’ staff at a meeting Wednesday, demanding a moratorium on probation billing, an investigation of billing practices and a task force that includes parents to make recommendations to county supervisors.

Calvin, who interviewed scores of families, said many could not understand the bills and received incorrect information when they called county staff for help, including warnings that their Social Security checks might be garnished.


Some parents say the county unfairly targets those who have homes and jobs, weakening functional homes and ignoring hard-core deadbeats. And many say the county’s sliding scale for assessing their ability to pay, based on 2003-2004 costs of living, is unrealistic. According to the scale, a single mother earning $14,300 a year with one child at home can afford to pay the county $37 a month.

“These bills do more than anything else to damage that relationship after these kids get out,” said Kim McGill of the Inglewood-based nonprofit Youth Justice Coalition.

Ruth “Cookie” Mayfield, 44, of South Los Angeles has been supporting her two children on $1,500 a month in state disability payments since she lost her job in August. She is paying the Probation Department $55 a month against a $5,000 debt for the detention of her son, Marcel Tripp, 18.

Mayfield said she appealed the county-imposed payment plan twice, unsuccessfully.

“I find myself getting mad because no matter what, the bills are still there,” said Mayfield, whose son has been out since May. “He knows I’m getting charged, and he’s one of these children who don’t care.”

Other youths said they feel bad about adding to family woes.

Edgar Garcia, 17, of Compton, saw his mother billed thousands of dollars for his stints in probation camps since police caught him spraying graffiti in 2005, with a handgun tucked in his waistband. In October, he was released from Camp Gonzalez in Malibu after winning a $45,000 scholarship to a Colorado boarding school based on financial need.

Before he left, Garcia said he worried about leaving his family -- who could not even afford his flight to Colorado -- to cope with the mounting pile of bills and collectors’ calls.


“I’m the one who did the crime,” he said. “Why do they have to pay?”





Daily rate that Los Angeles County charges for detaining a youth in juvenile hall


Daily rate for detention in a juvenile camp

$23.6 million

Total billed, fiscal year 2008

$2.6 million

Total collected, fiscal year 2008