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L.A. County probation officials define billing moratorium

April 01, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

More than six weeks after announcing a moratorium on the billing of parents and guardians of youths held in detention, Los Angeles County's top probation official released a long-awaited definition of what that declaration actually meant.

Far from sweeping, the newly released definition sets clear limits: Those who entered into payment plans before Feb. 16 are not covered.

The moratorium has caused considerable confusion, both among those being billed and Los Angeles County supervisors who oversee the probation department.

When he announced it Feb. 13, Probation Chief Robert Taylor told The Times: "We're not going to collect any money or send out any letters until we have a chance to examine how we do this."

But almost immediately after the moratorium, children's advocates said they struggled to get clarification so they could advise parents whether they had to pay their bills.

By law, the county can bill parents and legal guardians of youths held in its 22 camps and juvenile halls, but only those who can afford to pay. Los Angeles County charged $11.94 a day for probation camps and $23.63 a day for juvenile halls.

The moratorium was declared after questions were raised by The Times and children's advocates about improper billing of parents and guardians, including foster parents and the poor.

The definition released Tuesday explains that under the moratorium, probation has still been collecting bills, state income tax refunds and liens imposed on parents before Feb. 16.

When youth are detained, the department advises parents and guardians that they may be liable for detention costs, and Juvenile Court judges still order parents to pay.

As of Feb. 16, the probation department halted new bills, stopped entering into new payment plans and stopped requesting new default judgments or tax intercepts against parents refusing to pay, according to Tuesday's statement.

County supervisors ordered the county's chief executive and county counsel to define the moratorium by last Thursday. Principal Deputy County Counsel Gordon Trask declined to release the definition last week, citing attorney-client confidentiality, and the county's chief executive and supervisors only agreed to release it today.

Children's advocates said they were frustrated by the definition and its belated release and demanded the moratorium be extended to all those billed, since questions remain about whether past bills were improper.

"To wait a month and a half to put a directive in writing while continuing to punish youth and their families is unprofessional, unethical and calls into question the leadership of the department," said Kim McGill of the Inglewood-based nonprofit Youth Justice Coalition.

Last week, supervisors unanimously approved a proposal to appoint a group from various county departments and the juvenile courts to review probation billing policies, consult children's advocates and make recommendations in 90 days.

Anyone with questions about probation bills is asked to call: 866-931-2222.



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