Weeks after paying a record $27 million to settle lawsuits over holding adults in jail too long, Los Angeles County now faces a similar set of charges involving children who have been held in juvenile halls beyond their court-ordered release dates.
The problem is a lack of coordination between the county's Probation Department, which runs the juvenile halls, and its child welfare agency, which cares for abused and neglected children. When those children are released from custody, the Department of Children and Family Services must find a home for them.
Among them was Fernando, whose last name is not revealed in county records detailing his case. He was arrested for lewd acts at his group home in March 2000, when he was 14. According to his civil attorney, Sanford Jossen, Fernando was ordered released from juvenile hall in April.
When his release date came, however, it took about a dozen calls from his attorney to social workers, probation officers and, finally, county attorneys, before Fernando was released. By then, eight days had passed.
Fernando is one of at least 14 children who have filed claims against the county contending they were illegally detained after judges ordered their release.
"It's an intolerable situation and I think there are constitutional issues at stake," said Presiding Juvenile Judge Terry Friedman. "There's frightening potential for liability if one of these children should be hurt during this illegal detention."
He said judges raised the issue with county officials about six months ago after seeing child after child languish in juvenile hall past their release dates.
Despite widespread agreement that this should not be a difficult problem to resolve, it has been held up for weeks as two county departments quarrel over how to fix it.
"I don't know, frankly, why it's so hard," Friedman said. "It's not as though this is Pakistan and the United States."
The coordination problem usually arises when prosecutors or judges decide that foster children who have been arrested and sent to juvenile hall should not be charged and free them. The children return to the Department of Children and Family Services' custody. But they are not always picked up promptly by their social workers.
County supervisors are expected to discuss the matter next week. They are alarmed that two agencies have been unable to resolve the custody issue when they face even larger problems: Probation is under federal investigation for civil rights violations, and Children and Family Services has been plagued by a spate of foster child deaths this year.
"There has to be some kind of a solution to this," said Miguel Santana, spokesman for county Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he thinks a solution is close. "This is something that DCFS should be able to handle without difficulty," he said.
Both said the issue, though troublesome, does not come close to the scope of problems in the county jails, where as many as 400,000 inmates over five years were held past their court-ordered release dates. In August, the board agreed to pay $27 million to settle class-action lawsuits over the practice.
Critics see the juvenile over-detention problem as a sign that the county neglects children in its care.
"They could just hire taxis," fumed attorney Jossen, who said he represents 17 children held past their court-ordered release dates.
Probation officials acknowledge that coordination has been a problem for years. Last month alone, judges ordered 30 such children released from Probation's juvenile halls to Children and Family Services' custody, according to Probation.
For years, the county simply continued holding such children in juvenile hall until social workers picked them up. In one case, a child waited 19 days in juvenile hall.
"Detaining the youngster was not done to be vengeful and vindictive. We just wanted the youngsters to be safe and secure. These are children. You can't simply put them out the door," said Richard Shumsky, chief probation officer.
He said court orders for release indicate that children should be held by Probation "pending release" to a social worker.
But sensibilities have changed over the years, and now probationers want the children out of their facilities the day their release is ordered, Shumsky said.
Publicly, the heads of Probation and Children and Family Services said they are working together to find a solution.
Privately, they have exchanged terse, accusatory memos and e-mails.
In a pointed e-mail to Shumsky, Children and Family Services chief Anita Bock said Probation should give her department notice when a dependent child might be released, rather than routinely sending faxes to the agency at 4 p.m. when a child must be picked up by 5.
Shumsky replied in a three-page memo that Children and Family Services has as much information as he does and, in turn, complained that his staff was spending too much time tracking down social workers--in one case spending more than six hours on a single child.