Today, an LA Times story reported that, during a hearing to consider financial sanctions against the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Superior Court Judge Amy Pellman reprimanded department social workers for their handling of a juvenile dependency case.
The story describes a family consisting of two parents and eight children struggling with homelessness, financial difficulty, and, in the case of the father, alcoholism leading to domestic violence. The Department initially removed the children based upon these issues; however, what happened afterward is what drew Judge Pellman’s ire.
In November of last year things began looking up, with the mother reunited with the children after procuring an apartment and the father receiving counseling for his alcoholism. During his therapy, the father was ordered to stay away from the children, but was willing to live in his car to save money to pay the rent. The children were getting straight-A’s in school and participated in sports and dance.
However, the two social workers handling the case reported the family to the landlord for the apartment building, alleging the family was violating the lease by having too many people living in a single apartment. Based upon this report, the landlord evicted the family. Following the eviction, the workers contacted one of the children’s schools to report that she no longer lived within the school district. The family narrowly avoided the child’s expulsion by obtaining a waiver allowing her to remain in the school.
During the hearing, Pellman addressed social worker Eleanor Clements and case supervisor Juliet Macias, stating, “You are there to support this family, not harass them. If a parent is being nasty or obnoxious or disrespectful then you are the professionals, right? You are not to respond in kind, OK?” Pellman continued, concluding that the workers acted out of “bad blood” in an effort to stifle the family’s progress. Ultimately, however, Pellman concluded that she did not have the authority to impose sanctions against the department because the workers’ actions did not violate a court order.
The sanctions process stems from a judge’s inherent power to punish individuals or entities that the judge deems to have violated the Court’s authority. The imposition of such sanctions against the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services have risen substantially over the last few years, nearly doubling from $25,000 to $48,000 between 2010 and 2011.
As evidenced by this story, the Department of Children and Family Services wields a significant amount of authority and has the ability to impose considerable restrictions upon parents it deems unfit. To make matters worse, Courts often rely too much on reports prepared by social workers to make decisions regarding the children at issue.
Thankfully, stories like this are coming to the public’s attention. Finally the public can see what it only had heard anecdotally from parents caught in the nightmare that is dependency court. Social worker sometimes abuse their power and act out of malice when they don’t like the parents or don’t want them to succeed. A push for open courts is one solution to bring transparency to the system. Lauren K Johnson has written and spoken on this topic to the community. See her article in the CADC journal here and news about L.A.’s open courts here.
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