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Contractor failed to deliver vital parental notices, county says

January 17, 2008|Jean-Paul Renaud and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County auditors accused a private investigations company Wednesday of failing to fulfill a contract that required it to notify troubled parents if a judge was being asked to take away their children.

Yoakum Investigations Inc. was hired in December 2005 by the Department of Children and Family Services to deliver notices to parents who were about to lose rights over their children. But county auditors reviewed 21 cases in which Yoakum said it delivered hearing notices to parents who were in jail, and in 11 instances found no record that the paperwork was given to them.

"If they were served, there would have been a record that that prisoner had a visitor or that a record was given to the guards," said Jim Schneiderman, chief of the county auditor-controller's audit division. "It appears they didn't get served."

Auditors also found that in 10 of 15 cases involving parents not in custody, the company violated its contract by making only one attempt -- instead of the required three -- to deliver notice to the parents' homes. In three other cases they made only two attempts.

Parents whose rights are terminated can lose their children to adoption.

"It's important for parents to receive notices because they're entitled to due process," said Katherine Anderson, who represents parents in Dependency Court. "These are fundamental constitutional rights. And termination of parental rights is the most serious thing that can happen."

The county ended the $137,000 yearly contract with Yoakum in June after company employees were given several notices to deliver and then were tested on whether they accomplished the task.

"When we learned that they were unreliable, we basically went under a premise that every service that they provided was faulty," said Jim Owens, an attorney in the county counsel's office. "It sounds like it's more than an accident."

Owens said he and his staff pored over hundreds of notifications last fall, trying to confirm if everyone had been served. Letters were sent to 62 people supposed to have been served by Yoakum, inviting them to come forward if they felt they had never been asked to appear in court. He has gotten no response, he said.

"We're still waiting," Owens said. "We'll do whatever it takes to stabilize" the situation.

Yoakum was hired to deliver notices in 237 cases since the start of the contract, Owens said.

Family Services officials had asked the county auditor to also investigate Yoakum's services.

In 52% of the cases sampled, jail and prison logs, which record every visitor and package that enters a facility, showed no signs of notices being served.

According to the audit report, Yoakum executives declined to be interviewed but said Family Services officials had not required the company to keep a record confirming delivery of the notifications.

A man who answered the phone at Yoakum's office Wednesday would not identify himself to a reporter. But he said the county was aware of the company's practices. He said some jails and prisons don't require logs to be signed if notices are being handed to a guard for delivery.

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jp.renaud@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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