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L.A. County spends nearly $13,000 to chase $1,004

March 04, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Los Angeles County has paid private lawyers nearly $13,000 to pursue a $1,004 debt owed by a Compton woman for her teenage granddaughter's detention, officials acknowledged Tuesday.

The debt was still being pursued this week, despite the head of the Probation Department declaring a moratorium on such billing last month after The Times and children's advocates raised serious questions about billing practices.

The fact that the county had spent nearly 13 times the actual debt owed emerged Tuesday, when Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky grilled County Counsel Raymond Fortner about the case of grandmother Sally Stokes. Stokes is scheduled to appear before a judge today in Eastlake Juvenile Court in Los Angeles.

"How did it get this far?" Yaroslavsky asked. "Somebody should have been saying this doesn't make sense. This grandmother slipped through the cracks of the moratorium."

After the meeting, Fortner said the county had hired Glendale-based Lawrence, Beach, Allen and Choi as outside counsel because "the case involved broader issues."

Some children's advocates have argued that charging legal guardians and adoptive parents is bad policy and could discourage those willing to take in hard-to-place minors.

Stokes' attorney -- Lara Holtzman of the nonprofit Alliance for Children's Rights --initially challenged the constitutionality of probation billing. Recently, she said, she narrowed her focus, requesting only that Stokes' bill be dismissed. She said the county's private attorney, Jin Choi, told her that probation officials refused to settle. Choi did not return phone calls Tuesday, and Probation Department spokeswoman Kerri Webb said she could not comment on pending court cases.

Stokes, 56, a retired aerospace worker, took in four of her grandchildren 14 years ago after they were abused by her daughter's boyfriend. In 2007, her 17-year-old granddaughter was charged with vandalism and making criminal threats. Stokes said she spent her savings to hire a private lawyer to defend the girl, who was later released.

By then, she had racked up $1,004 in daily fees. Probation officials ordered Stokes to pay $25 a month.

She appealed, arguing that she could not afford the payments on her $1,630 monthly Social Security checks. Probation officials apparently improperly counted payments she gets from the state for her other grandchildren toward her income.

"Right now, I'm struggling," Stokes said. "All my extra money is gone."

State law allows parents and guardians to be charged for each day a child is detained -- a policy meant to keep them from dumping troubled wards on overburdened counties -- but prohibits billing those too poor to pay.

Yaroslavsky said Tuesday that given the circumstances of Stokes' case, he is now concerned that the county could be spending more trying to recover juvenile probation debts than it recoups. Last year, the county spent nearly $900,000, excluding legal fees, to collect only $2.6 million of the $23.6 million owed.

Fortner, who said he did not believe more was being spent than recovered, said it was uncommon for his office to hire outside counsel.

Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor has said that he expects billing to resume and has circulated a proposal to increase daily charges -- now $11.94 for camps, $23.63 for halls -- by about 24%. He has resisted requests by parents and youth advocates to mail letters to families and post signs at probation camps and halls about the moratorium.

Yaroslavsky said more should be done to notify families.

"You have to let people know," he said. "It can't be a stealth moratorium."

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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