Los Angeles County has entered into a new settlement of a longstanding federal lawsuit alleging that its foster system was not providing necessary mental health services for youth in its care, it was announced Thursday.
Originally filed in 2002, Katie A. v. Bonta challenged the county and state agencies for allegedly neglecting their duties to provide necessary and legally mandated health care services to treat the mental health conditions of children. Separate settlement agreements were reached with both the state and county in the case.
“We have been working on this case for almost two decades now,” said Robert Newman, an attorney for the Los Angeles-based Western Center on Law & Poverty. “To end the lawsuit, the county has agreed to implement several new initiatives to ensure that foster children can remain in their current homes and communities.”
According to Wednesday’s joint stipulation in the class-action suit, the county has agreed to implement new measures to provide specialty mental health services, including intensive care coordination and intensive home-based services, over the next nine months. A hearing is set for April in Los Angeles federal court.
The child welfare complaint named the California Department of Health Services, Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services and the California Department of Social Services as defendants. When the suit was filed, the plaintiff was a 14-year-old girl who had been in foster care for 10 years. She was removed from her home at age 4 on account of neglect.
Messages requesting comment sent to state and county defendants were not immediately answered.
The county first settled the lawsuit back in 2003 and agreed to provide mental health services. A long monitoring process began, but it became clear over time that the county was not providing the services it agreed to, according to the plaintiffs, who filed a successful motion in 2009 to enforce the original settlement provisions. Last year, the county filed a motion to end the case.
“We have worked on this case for many years because it was clear that foster youth in L.A. County, especially those with serious mental disorders, were not getting the services they needed,” said Melinda Bird, senior litigation counsel at Disability Rights California, which is based in Los Angeles. “We had to keep fighting.”
Because of the lawsuit, the county has implemented a number of reforms in the delivery of child welfare and mental health services. The new settlement focuses on foster youth who have more intensive but unmet mental health needs, such as those who have experienced placement disruptions, psychiatric hospitalizations, or have been placed in group homes, such as short-term residential treatment programs.
“The Katie A. case has led to tremendous reforms,” said Ira Burnim, legal director at Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “We are pleased that additional progress will be made before the case ends.”
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