San Bernardino County’s Department of Children and Family Services. (File photo by Beau Yarbrough, San Bernardino Sun/SCNG)
San Bernardino County is being sued over its treatment of foster children.
A 68-page class action lawsuit was filed on Thursday, May 25, in U.S. District Court in Riverside, on behalf of more than 5,800 children who are or will likely end up in foster care.
The suit was filed against the California Department of Social Services, CDSS Director Kim Johnson, Gov. Gavin Newsom, San Bernardino County, the county Board of Supervisors and Department of Children and Family Services and CFS Director Jeany Zepeda. A second class of plaintiffs consists of hundreds of children with disabilities in the foster care system, whom the lawsuit claims have been especially harmed by the foster care system.
“Workers in San Bernardino County can’t possibly protect these children because of their high caseloads, no matter how hard they might try,” Marcia Robinson Lowry, director of A Better Childhood, the national nonprofit that brought the lawsuit, is quoted as saying in a news release issued Thursday.
“This is an ingrained system that ignores the needs of these children, and far too many children are suffering grievously because of it,” Lowry continued. “California should be doing far better for its most vulnerable children. Neither the state nor the county is stepping in to help these kids and reform is long overdue.”
San Bernardino County did not immediately have a response early Thursday afternoon, and Jason Montiel, a spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services, declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
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Thursday’s lawsuit follows San Bernardino County settling foster child sexual abuse case for $7.8 million last September.
In December, the San Bernardino County grand jury issued a harsh report that called the department “too broken to fix” and said the entire system should be dismantled and replaced, arguing that “foster children are put in danger in San Bernardino County.” According to the grand jury, the number of substantiated child abuse among San Bernardino County’s foster children has risen over the last three years.
In its response to the grand jury suit, the county said, “Children and Family Services believes in the services that it provides to the community.”
According to the lawsuit, children in the care of the county receive far worse care than the national average and the plaintiffs are well aware of problems with the system.
The suit alleges that Children and Family Services fails to adequately screen would-be foster parents or monitor children once placed within them; does inadequate planning for how to handle each case; does not have the ability to place children in short-term emergency housing — leading to sometimes housing them in the department’s offices overnight; doesn’t provide adequate healthcare to children in their care; fails to protect them from mistreatment while in foster care; doesn’t get enough children into permanent placements and does not provide effective services for children with disabilities.
And all of this, according to the lawsuit, comes down to the department having too few caseworkers juggling too many cases.
“High caseloads prevent CFS’s caseworkers from adequately assessing a child’s safety or well-being, developing individualized case plans, facilitating reunification services, placing children in appropriate placements, or deciding when to petition to terminate parental rights, all of which are required under state and federal laws,” the lawsuit reads in part. “Manageable caseloads can exist only when an agency develops and maintains an adequately funded and well-planned child welfare system that aggressively recruits, trains, and retains caseworkers.”
According to the lawsuit, both the Child Welfare League of America and the Council on Accreditation recommend caseworkers have a caseload of 12 to 15 children. But according to the 2022 grand jury report, Children and Family Services caseworkers instead have caseloads of 70 to 90 children each.
The lawsuit asks that the U.S. District Court require the county do the following:
- Align county caseworkers’ caseloads with Child Welfare League of America and the Council on Accreditation recommendations.
- Recruit and retain enough qualified employees to properly supervise children.
- Provide an adequate individualized plan for all children placed in CFS’s care within 60 days.
- Create a written plan for family reunification, adoption or another permanent family-like setting.
- Create a written plan for children whose cases include special treatment, services or safety concerns.
- Create adequate short-term emergency housing options so foster children don’t have to sleep in the department’s offices.
- Properly screen all prospective foster homes and conduct in-home visits at least once a month, interviewing the foster children separately from their foster parents.
The lawsuit also asks for “reasonable costs and expenses incurred to litigate this action, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.”
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