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County Settles Lawsuit Over Care of Children

The agreement and MacLaren center's closing suggest major changes in approach.

March 14, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

A week after closing its beleaguered shelter for abused and neglected foster children, Los Angeles County settled a federal lawsuit Thursday that sought higher standards for mental health care in the child-welfare system.

The closure of MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte and the legal settlement suggest a marked departure from the county's traditional approach to caring for its neediest children.

For years, the class-action lawsuit charged, the county relied chiefly on restrictive group homes and psychiatric hospitals to treat children with serious psychiatric, emotional or behavioral problems, rather than try to keep them at home with their families.

County lawmakers described the lawsuit, which was filed in July by the American Civil Liberties Union and other public interest firms, as lighting a fire under a sluggish bureaucracy that had stubbornly resisted reform.

"Unfortunately, what we have seen is a county orphanage that almost turned into an asylum," county Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

"I hate to say that, but that's the reality," she said. "The lawsuit really moved [the county] to start thinking differently about MacLaren."

The county admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to several changes meant to keep children from entering foster care. The county's Department of Children and Family Services serves about 50,000 children, some 30,000 of whom have been removed from their homes, said Marjorie Kelly, its interim director.

According to the settlement, the county will offer prompt mental health care individually tailored to each child, ideally while he or she still lives at home.

The emphasis will be on preventive care to stabilize children in their homes or, if they are separated from their families, to reunite them as quickly as possible.

To ensure county compliance, the settlement also calls for a six-person advisory panel of child-welfare experts to monitor progress.

"The overarching philosophy of this agreement can be simply stated: The role of the government is to preserve families, not replace them," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. "Children belong in families, not institutions."

The county also agreed to surrender its license to operate MacLaren, which closed last week after decades of overcrowding, staff shakeups and allegations of child abuse.

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Times staff writer Daren Briscoe contributed to this report.

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