Los Angeles County is condemning older foster youth to long, destabilizing stints of homelessness and couch-surfing by failing to provide them with appropriate homes, a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.
In a 108-page complaint, attorneys with four law firms argue that L.A. County, responsible for the local foster care system, and the state of California, which monitors that system, are shirking their legal responsibility to ensure foster youths between the ages of 16 and 21 have a safe and stable place to live. Instead, the filing alleges, local government has created a “foster care to homelessness pipeline.”
In California, eligible youths can opt to remain in foster care until they turn 21. Last year, L.A. County was responsible for more than 4,200 youths between the ages of 16 and 21, according to the lawsuit.
One of the county’s chief responsibilities: ensuring these youth have both stable housing and behavioral health services they will need to tackle long histories of trauma and abuse.
Leecia Welch, a deputy legal director at Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy organization, said the county has failed on both fronts.
“When L.A. makes the decision to take responsibility for raising these young people, and step into the shoes of their parents, at the very least, it can’t leave them homeless,” said Welch, whose firm joined Public Counsel, Munger, Tolles & Olson, and Alliance for Children’s Rights in the lawsuit.
The four firms sued the county’s Children and Family Services and Mental Health departments — which find placements for foster youths and provide them with behavioral health services — and well as the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Department of Health Care Services and Department of Social Services, all three of which play a role in overseeing and administering these services.
The suit argues both the county and state violated the constitutional rights of older foster youths by subjecting them to “extreme housing instability and homelessness” while they remain in foster care. The suit asks for a judge to require youth be provided with “safe and stable placements at all times.”
The county Departments of Child and Family Services and Mental Health said in a statement that they take the allegations “very seriously” and were aware young people exiting the child welfare system faced “significant stressors,” including lack of housing.
The two county departments “help transition-age youth navigate these and other challenges by providing assistance with education and housing plans, job preparedness, transportation and mental health services,” the statement said. “The county is committed to ensuring the mental well-being of young people as they enter adulthood and providing available services to assist with that transition.”
The three state agencies declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuits.
The suit was filed as a class action on behalf of all county foster youth between the ages of 16 and 21. Six plaintiffs, all given pseudonyms in the filings, say their time in foster care as a teen or young adult has been punctuated with stints of homelessness, violence and instability.