Five public-interest law firms filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the director of the Department of Children's Services, charging that the county is not adequately protecting the majority of the approximately 30,000 children under its care.
Patricia L. Nagler, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said the department is violating state regulations that require social workers to make at least one visit monthly to abused and neglected children placed in their care under court order.
"Visitation is the key to children's safety," Nagler said. "We're asking that the county do no more than the minimum standard where, in reality, those children need much more."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Children's Services declined to comment on the Los Angeles Superior Court suit, because the case is in litigation.
Associate County Counsel Leela Kapur, who will be representing the department, said her office had not been served with the suit and had no comment.
The suit was filed on behalf of three children who suffered severe physical and/or emotional trauma because of the department's failure to supervise their care, the public-interest attorneys said. The lawyers said the three children named in the suit are representative of the 80% of the Department of Children's Services' caseload that they allege are neglected.
One of the cases involves "Tequila L." (not her real name), a 10-year-old who was placed in foster care because her mother was using the drug PCP. She was assigned three different social workers and, during a six-month period, received none of the visits required by state law.
"The community can no longer rely on DCS for emergency services," said Sharon Frederick, a social worker who said she spoke on behalf of Service Employees Internation Union Local 535.
Frederick said the union complained in a formal letter to department director Robert Chaffee that more workers are needed to staff the agency, but was told that the county lacks the money.
Melinda Bird, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said that the care of children should outweigh fiscal concerns.
"They (the county) may say, 'We don't have the money,' but that's not a defense," Bird said.
Frederick said social workers, ideally, should have 25 to 30 cases, but in reality are overburdened with 60 to 100 cases. With such caseloads, social workers have difficulty being effective, she said.
"I don't know why we're called the Department of Children's Services," the social worker said. "We're not protecting the children."
The suit was filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Public Counsel and the Western Center for Law and Poverty. The children are also represented by two San Francisco-based children's rights organizations--the Youth Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law.