Thousands of foster children in California each day suffer needless emotional trauma because of delays in placing them in adoptive homes, a legal advocacy group charged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against state authorities.
The complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court by the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop, alleges that state officials have failed to develop a system to ensure that adoptions are processed quickly and are failing to monitor adoption services provided by counties.
As a result, the lawsuit alleges, thousands of children languish in foster care and endure vastly different waiting times for permanent homes.
The lawsuit cites Los Angeles County as an egregious example. In 2002, it took an average of nearly two years for a foster child in the Los Angeles area to be adopted after parental rights were terminated, far longer than in many other counties, according to the complaint.
"This delay and resulting impermanence create severe emotional distress and psychological harm to children and deprives children of the economic and other benefits that flow from the parent-child relationship," the suit said.
Children in such legal limbo, according to the complaint, cannot receive pensions or survivors benefits and often don't qualify for insurance programs or employee benefits.
"Most of these children are living with families that want to adopt them," said Youth Law Center attorney Alice Bussiere. "The paperwork is just not processed in a timely manner."
State officials said they are studying the complaint and could not respond to specific allegations. But they said they have begun to improve services.
The state Department of Social Services received about $22 million two years ago to accelerate placements, and the numbers of finalized adoptions rose from fewer than 3,000 in 1999 to more than 7,800 last year, said Social Services Director Rita Saenz.
But she cautioned that it will be difficult to standardize practices in all counties. "We will respond by whatever means necessary to improve placements, but it's a complicated issue, and we can't approach it with a one-size-fits-all approach," Saenz said.
Officials in Los Angeles County acknowledged shortcomings in its adoption program and said the county is launching an initiative to improve efficiency for timely placements and to study what works for other adoption agencies, said Trish Ploehn, the county's newly hired head of adoptions.
Marjorie Kelly, interim director of the county Department of Children and Family Services, added, however, that it would have been more beneficial for the law center to help the county improve than file a lawsuit.
The lawsuit follows a series of recent reports and audits highly critical of foster services in the state. A Little Hoover Commission report last week found that many foster children receive inadequate care largely because the state has failed to assert leadership to address long-standing problems.
Federal regulators in January found California to be out of compliance with several federal standards, including allowing children to remain too long in foster homes, emergency shelters and other facilities. The state could be hit with an $18-million penalty if it does not improve.
And in November, a report by Los Angeles County auditors disclosed "a number of inefficient operating practices" that prolong the adoption process for foster children. Paperwork and other proceedings to finalize adoptions that should take about 12 months to complete average more than 44 months, the audit found.
The problems are illustrated in cases such as that of Donna Prada, 62, of Monrovia, whose adoption of her granddaughter and three step-grandchildren took two years to complete.
Prada said she and a 36-year-old daughter, who jointly adopted the children, filled out paperwork, passed the home study and were told by their adoption caseworker that everything was on track.
But when after a year the caseworker was replaced, Prada said, she learned that none of the paperwork had been filed and that they would have to start again from the beginning.
"We all sat down and it was like, 'Wow, what happened?' The new caseworker was just as confused and couldn't really explain what had gone wrong," she said.
It is exactly such stories that put off many potential adoptive parents, said Amy Pellman, legal director of the Alliance for Children's Rights, which provides free legal services for adoptions in Los Angeles County.
"I think if the lawsuit forces the state to develop appropriate milestones and that the county of Los Angeles feels more pressured to comply with those milestones, it can only help adopting families and children."