A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Los Angeles County has often failed to provide “safe and stable” placements for older foster youth in its care, forcing many to live on the street, in short-term motels and in shelters.
“Far too often, the system designed to protect and safeguard youths’ needs exacerbates their trauma as they are cycled through multiple unsuitable placements, lose contact with siblings and other loved ones, and experience abuse and neglect in foster placements,” states the complaint filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of six foster youth, ages 17 to 20.
The suit, filed by the public-interest law firms the Alliance for Children’s Rights, Children’s Rights and Public Counsel, describes current policies and practices designed to serve young adults in county care as “treacherous.”
Cases described in the 98-page court filing include:
Rosie S., a 20-year-old who is pregnant, and had to find a placement in Las Vegas after getting kicked out of a transitional housing program in Los Angeles County. For six months, she had no health insurance and did not receive “expectant parent” payments to support herself and her unborn child.
Ocean S. was twice discharged from transitional housing placements for being pregnant and for inviting an unauthorized guest. She was later incarcerated and held past her release date due to a lack of suitable placements. The county child welfare agency advised her to stay at a domestic violence shelter when no other placements were available.
After experiencing homelessness, Junior R. was ejected by a housing program for having a messy room. He later lived in various short-term hotels and unlicensed placements. After a stay with his grandmother was disrupted due to lack of support from the agency charged with his care, he ended up homeless again. His lawyers allege the Department of Children and Family Services then attempted to close his case, citing a lack of employment and not having enrolled in school in spite of his homelessness.
The lawsuit names the California Department of Social Services, California Health and Human Services Agency, California Department of Health Care Services, Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health as defendants.
A joint statement issued on behalf of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Mental Health said that while the agencies do not usually comment on pending litigation, officials there were taking the lawsuit’s allegations “very seriously.”
“We continue to explore partnerships with public, private and nonprofit organizations with the goals of enhancing housing stability and creating living-wage job opportunities for young people exiting care,” the emailed statement reads. “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 lawsuit describes several housing-related issues facing transition-age foster youth, including a dearth of stable and appropriate options, abrupt discharges from programs that lack resources, and a lack of emergency options.
These failures expose teens and young adults in foster care to the risk of homelessness immediately, as well as later in life, the lawsuit alleges. Other consequences of unstable housing include a risk of physical assault, lowered educational attainment, mental health challenges, unemployment and arrest.
The complaint also alleges that social workers have provided inadequate case planning and preparation for independent living, and little to no assistance in helping young people get through Byzantine mental health and housing services.
“Transition age foster youth are one arbitrary decision away from homelessness,” the lawsuit reads.
Homeless youth in need of mental health care are being particularly ill-served, the court documents say.
“Already challenging for any youth, deciphering the intricacies of transition age foster youth placement options is particularly arduous for youth with mental health disabilities,” the lawsuit states.
As of April 2023, L.A. County had roughly 2,400 young adults ages 18 to 21 in its extended foster care system, according to state data. Established in 2010, extended foster care is intended to assist young adults with education, housing plans, job preparedness, transportation and mental health services, in an effort to prepare them to succeed on their own.
However, the public-interest attorneys who filed the lawsuit Tuesday said L.A. County has stumbled in providing these vital safety net services.
“By denying transition age youth in foster care the housing and crucial services they are legally entitled to, state and county defendants send the unmistakable message that these youth are disposable, that their care is a responsibility for which the government would rather just wash its hands,” said Tara Ford, senior counsel with Public Counsel.
“Today our young clients, who are all transition age youth in foster care, take the bold step of protecting their rights, they send another unmistakable message: ‘We do matter. We deserve care. We deserve better.’”