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L.A. County revises billing for youths in custody

Probation official says the moratorium announced last month doesn't apply to charges already issued.

March 25, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

More than a month after declaring a moratorium on billing parents and guardians of youths held in detention, Los Angeles County's top probation official backpedaled Tuesday, saying his department is still collecting on thousands of bills even as it reassesses its billing practices.

Probation Chief Robert Taylor announced the moratorium Feb. 13 after questions from The Times and children's advocates about bills that had gone to foster parents and those too poor to pay, despite state law prohibiting such charges.

"We're not going to collect any money or send out any letters until we have a chance to examine how we do this," Taylor told The Times the day he announced the moratorium.

But under questioning from Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday, Taylor said the moratorium did not extend to bills already sent to families. His comments left supervisors frustrated and drew sharp criticism from children's advocates.

Taylor addressed the supervisors amid continued confusion about bills that still are being sent -- new and old. He previously said that his department improperly billed foster parents and may have failed to notify parents of their right to appeal the bills -- raising questions about whether some people were paying bills they did not owe.

Supervisor Gloria Molina asked Taylor on Tuesday what she should tell a constituent who asked whether he should continue to make monthly payments to the Probation Department.

"I don't want to lull people into a false sense of security that because of the moratorium they don't have to pay, because down the road after all this, they may have to," Taylor said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky asked whether those with payment plans face the threat of having their tax refunds seized and liens placed on their homes if they stop paying.

"We're not going to suspend receiving those payments," Taylor said.

Kim McGill of the Inglewood-based nonprofit Youth Justice Coalition told supervisors that probation officials should be forced to abide by their initial definition of the moratorium and notify parents in writing, which they have so far refused to do.

"We want an immediate, very aggressive effort to monitor that probation is stopping all billing and pull back on collections, whether seizing homes to taking income directly from employers," McGill said.

Molina, who said she believes some parents must be held accountable for the bills, chastised McGill for telling parents they did not have to pay under the moratorium.

But Yaroslavsky said that even probation officials were unclear about what the moratorium meant.

"There is a considerable amount of confusion, not just among the public, but among us," he said, adding that it did not make sense to continue collecting on past bills without knowing whether parents' rights to a fair hearing had been violated.

William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, promised Tuesday to report back to the board on the matter by Thursday. "We need clarification," Fujioka said.

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

Before going into closed session to discuss the moratorium, 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.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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