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Court Slams How County Took Mom's Twins Away

Appeals court finds Social Services' failure to notify woman of custody hearing 'indefensible.' Director orders review of procedures.

October 13, 2000|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Focusing attention on what justices say is a larger problem, a state appeals court on Thursday blasted Orange County's Social Services Agency for not giving notice of a crucial hearing to a mother whose parental rights to her twin boys were revoked by a juvenile court.

The failure of the agency to notify the mother exposed a "fatal" flaw in the process, said the justices, who also criticized the agency for disrupting the children's lives with needless litigation.

"The agency has not even attempted to advise a parent of proceedings that affect her fundamental rights as a parent," wrote Justice William F. Rylaarsdam. "Rather than immediately conceding the point, [the agency] has relentlessly pursued the defense of an indefensible position."

The harshly worded opinion is the latest in a stream of criticism against the county over the way it deals with children from troubled families.

Larry Leaman, the agency director, said the ruling will prompt an immediate review of some of the agency's procedures.

"If there's a system failure, we'll fix it," he said. "In this business there's no room for error."

The appeals court has faulted the county's child welfare system in the past. In a 1997 ruling in a similar case, the justices wrote: "The dependency system as a whole is ill-served by . . . defective procedures."

The Thursday decision by the state appeals court in Santa Ana clears the way for the woman to fight for custody of the children who were taken away from her in 1998 after no one picked them up from a day-care facility. Since then the 3-year-old boys have lived with foster parents who have said they want to adopt them.

Because the trial took place in juvenile court, the full names of the parents and children were not disclosed.

The mother, a 28-year-old Los Angeles County woman, never married the boys' father, a former Fullerton resident who has been in and out of prison on drug-related charges, according to court records. The agency urged that the mother's rights be terminated after failing to locate her for a six-month evaluation hearing.

But the justices questioned why social workers apparently did not ask the mother's relatives or close friends for information on her whereabouts. The woman's attorney, Sandra L. Thomas, said the mother never stopped searching for the boys and didn't know they had been taken into protective custody.

The agency's errors have had tragic consequences, the attorney said. The mother, Thomas said, will now take the court-ordered treatment plan--typically parenting and counseling classes--in a belated bid to regain custody of her children.

"The real tragedy of this case is that if the county had given notice earlier . . . she wouldn't have been deprived of her children for so long," Thomas said.

The justices reinstated the father rights in part so he would still be liable for child support payments. His rights, according to court documents, were terminated because he failed to comply with the court-ordered treatment program.

Leaman said the agency usually does comprehensive searches for absent parents, including reviews of tax and vehicle registration records. In this case, he said, the agency didn't send a notice because they knew the mother didn't live at her most recent address.

From now on, he said, the agency would send notices in all cases.

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