The cost of drug treatment, anger management sessions and counseling has long been the responsibility of parents accused of child maltreatment in California’s most populous county. The impact of these financial obstacles on families — who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous — can amount to longer stays in foster care and insurmountable obstacles to reunification.
But a new state law and a recent move by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors aim to tackle this widely acknowledged injustice in the local child welfare system: Making low-income parents pay for programs they need to complete to get their kids back from foster care.
“Getting your kids back, it comes down to money, it comes down to resources,” said Jacqueline Herrera. The Van Nuys mother and her children ended up entangled with the Department of Children and Family Services in 2018, after she called 911 for protection from an abusive partner. “Without support, the whole thing feels more like a punishment than a helping hand.”
That burden could soon be lifted for thousands of Los Angeles County parents in similar circumstances. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will require dependency court judges starting Jan. 1 to determine if parents can afford mandated service plans, before they can be ordered. The bill does not eliminate the possibility of these fees, but will prevent parents from being penalized due to economic reasons alone. Local officials are also working on solutions to the problem.
Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Akemi Arakaki is among those lauding the efforts. She calls the financial burden on low-income parents in her dependency courts the “elephant in the room.”
“If we could eliminate the wealth gap as a barrier to reunification, it could truly be a game-changer for all of us,” Arakaki wrote in a statement to The Imprint.
After children are removed from parents accused of neglect or abuse, judges order an array of services, designed to remedy the problems that brought the authorities into the family home — commonly addiction, domestic violence and untreated mental illness. Over months and sometimes years, the court reviews parents’ progress to determine whether it’s safe for the children to return home. Under state and federal laws, parents face strict timelines. If they don’t show adequate progress on court-ordered services, their ability to reunify with their children can be ended in as few as six months for babies and toddlers.
In Herrera’s case, after the emergency call to police, child protective services was contacted. That led to a petition filed against her in dependency court. Social workers argued Herrrera had failed to protect her children from a violent partner, and as a result, a judge ordered her to complete parenting classes and months of counseling if she wanted to keep her four children out of foster care.
She achieved those goals and that terrifying prospect was avoided. But it weighed heavily on the mother who had little help from her social worker as she rebuilt her life. Herrera said each week it cost $80 for family therapy, $40 for individual counseling and an additional $60 for a babysitter while she attended the court-ordered sessions.
Even after finding a new apartment and working as a waitress, her finances and mental health were stretched thin, she said. Herrera skipped dinner sometimes, and spent nights wondering whether she would ever be able to watch her four sons grow up.
“This system is set up for you to fail,” she said.
The vast majority of California families who enter the child welfare system come from impoverished circumstances like these. Research prepared for the California Legislature in April found that more than half of child welfare-involved families in California get by on less than $1,000 a month.
Los Angeles County is believed to be the only county in the state where parents must cover the cost of their court-ordered programs that can run between $15 and $45 a session, regardless of their financial circumstances. Some services can be even more costly. Health insurance — including the state’s Medi-Cal program — covers some services. But some of the most in-demand services, including counseling for parents and children, don’t accept public benefits as payment, or there are lengthy waiting lists. Programs that have a sliding-scale or a no-fee option are in short supply, and not available in all parts of the sprawling county.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Family Services said the agency acknowledges that being separated from children places emotional and financial hardships on parents, including the cost of court-ordered services. Los Angeles County is among the largest child welfare systems in the country, the spokesperson said in an email, and its size presents significant challenges, along with high rates of poverty, substance use and homelessness. But officials are now working with other county agencies to make free services more widely available, she added.
A recent county analysis of a referral list given to parents in Southeast L.A. County found that of 100 service providers, dozens offered a sliding-scale, but just 13 had a no-cost option. The California Children’s Trust found only 21 providers out of 100 that accepted Medi-Cal insurance as payment for some services. No public insurance options were available for anger management or parenting classes.
As a result, parents are being ordered to do things to reunify with their children that they simply cannot afford. And until now, Los Angeles County and state authorities have not done anything about it.
“Requiring our most vulnerable parents to try to come up with funds to pay for costly reunification services while they are struggling to make ends meet both punishes poverty and frustrates the main goals of the child welfare system – keeping children safe and reunifying families,” said L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis in a statement emailed to The Imprint.