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L.A. County Probation Department suspends aggressive billing of guardians

After inquiries by the L.A. Times, the department imposes a temporary moratorium on fees charged to parents and guardians for each day a youth spends in county detention.

February 14, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

A year ago, Michael Bowler took in 16-year-old twins he met while volunteering at a Los Angeles County probation hall.

Bowler, a 51-year-old special education teacher who volunteered through the Catholic Church, thought he could help the county as well as Edward and Louis Hanson by giving them a home.

Instead of thanking Bowler, the county billed him nearly $10,000.

When the bill arrived in October, Bowler studied it, confused. The county was charging him for Edward's detention before the brothers even came to live with him.

Bowler called a phone number on the bill. No one called him back. By November, the bills hadn't stopped and county officials had placed a lien on Bowler's Chatsworth home.

"It makes me wonder, how often does this happen?" Bowler said. "Do foster parents get billed who take a child in? Because that shouldn't be. I was doing the county a favor by taking these children in."

On Friday, after inquiries by The Times about their billing practices, Los Angeles County probation officials imposed a temporary moratorium on fees charged to parents and guardians for each day a youth spends in county detention.

"We're not going to collect any money or send out any letters until we have a chance to examine how we do this," Probation Department Chief Robert Taylor said.

A Times investigation of those charges found that thousands billed told probation officials they could not afford to pay. Last year, more than 8,100 people who failed to pay bills were scheduled to meet with financial evaluators. Few got relief. Only 198 had fees waived, including 57 on public assistance, county records show.

Until Friday, Los Angeles County charged $11.94 a day for probation camps and $23.63 a day for juvenile halls. That is a fraction of the $100 to $200 cost per day of detaining the 20,000 youths who enter the county's 19 camps and three halls each year.

Despite increasingly aggressive billing policies, only $2.6 million of the $23.6 million billed last year was recovered. To recover even that small portion, the county spent $812,000 on a five-person probation fee collections office and $56,000 on an Austin, Texas-based collections agency.

Bowler was one of the few to win his battle. He had been billed even though the boys remained wards of the county when they came to live with him. After he appealed to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Probation Department canceled his bill. Bowler still had to drive to the county courthouse in Norwalk to pay a $14 fee before the county would remove the lien from his home.

His case is among those that raised serious questions about whom the Probation Department pursues and the methods it uses to do so, including seizing state tax returns, putting liens on property, and, in some cases, garnishing wages.

Taylor said Friday that he stands behind billing families. Without financial accountability, he and some county supervisors say, parents would be more prone to dump wards on the juvenile justice system.

But after supervisors' aides questioned whether some of the billing was legal -- questions asked after The Times cited specific cases to supervisors earlier this week -- Taylor said he decided to review department practices.

Critics of the policy argue that it strains families just when they most need support: when the youth returns home.

"The county does not appear to have made the effort to discern who can afford to pay and who cannot," Yaroslavsky said. "There ought to be a high level of concern about what we're doing."

In numerous instances, The Times has found, the county went after grandparents, extended family members and even foster parents who had taken in troubled children. Although state law requires that counties charge only those who can afford to pay, those aggressively pursued include:

* A homeless mother living in a downtown L.A. shelter.

* A disabled North Hollywood grandmother in her 70s who was billed $4,700 for her 17-year-old grandson, one of three grandchildren she has taken in.

* A 63-year-old North Hollywood woman laid off from her accounting job last year and working part-time for minimum wage at Sears who was billed $3,000 for her 17-year-old grandson.

* A stay-at-home mother of three in Compton, whose husband earns about $14,400 a year at a metal factory, who was billed $2,600 for her 17-year-old son.

* A disabled postal worker in Granada Hills with three children who was billed $1,200 for the 17-year-old nephew he had adopted.

"We're not criminals," said 52-year-old postal worker Moises Lizarraga. "You're already down and out and going through what you're going through. How is paying money going to help? How is that going to keep you engaged? Them addressing our concerns would keep us engaged."

A spokesman for Don Knabe, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the panel is investigating the examples of aggressively pursued cases.

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