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Getting Even with Mom
July 3, 2012 permalink
A news report details the harassment meted out to a family with eight children by two Los Angeles DCFS workers, Juliet Macias and Eleanor Clements, after they were insulted by the mother. Los Angeles child dependency courts are now open to the public, so reporters were able to sit in on a court hearing in the case. Among the actions of the DCFS workers:
A spokesman for the court-appointed firm that represented the mother said there was nothing highly unusual about the level of retaliation in this case. Los Angeles DCFS has not acted to penalize the workers, but has moved in court to get the judge in the case disqualified from taking new cases. The mother lives in constant fear of the knock on the door.
County workers rebuked for misusing power in child welfare case
An L.A. County Superior Court judge says the social workers acted out of 'bad blood' to unravel a family's progress and put 8 children at risk of being retaken by the county.
The mother acknowledged she unleashed a bitter torrent of accusations against the social workers who took her children last year, calling incessantly to claim they were being abused in foster care.
But what the workers did in return has drawn a stern rebuke from a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. Amy Pellman, a jurist with deep experience in the county's child welfare system, said they misused their power by retaliating and harassing the family.
After she affirmed a referee's decision to return the children to their mother, Pellman declared that the workers acted out of "bad blood" to unravel the family's progress and place the children at risk of being retaken by the county. "They told me they hate me just as much as I hate them," the mother said in an interview.
The mother, who spoke on the condition that her family not be identified in The Times out of fear that such a disclosure might prompt increased scrutiny, said she never felt more broken. "Every time there's a knock on the door, my heart skips a beat," she said. "It can go wrong so easily. I still carry the scars."
Social workers for the county Department of Children and Family Services often say they feel nearly helpless, managing high caseloads, struggling to meet minimum requirements for paperwork and visits, and too infrequently fulfilling the field's higher aspiration to perform a complex balance of dogged investigator and patient cheerleader so troubled families can eventually succeed.
Nevertheless, they wield enormous power over people at perhaps the most vulnerable point in their lives. They are able to impose intrusive restrictions and requirements on parents, and judges rely overwhelmingly on their reports to make decisions. When that power is abused, a family's already daunting recovery is made more difficult.
The family in this case had struggled with chronic homelessness for years, leaving the parents sometimes unable to meet their eight children's basic needs, and the father's alcoholism sometimes erupted in domestic violence.
But the family also had strengths. By the time the mother was reunited with her children in November, they had an apartment. The father complied with a stay-away order while receiving counseling and was willing to live in his car to save his construction earnings so the family could pay the rent. The children all earned straight-A's and excelled in sports and dance with their parents' support.
However, Pellman concluded that two social workers central to the case — neither of whom would comment for this report — maliciously contacted their landlord to say the mother and eight children were violating lease restrictions against so many living in the single-bedroom apartment. They were soon evicted.
The workers also contacted the school of one girl to say she no longer lived within its boundaries. The school initiated expulsion proceedings.
The family eventually won a special waiver to allow the girl to remain in the school. They also narrowly avoided sinking back into homelessness by using a savings account for one child's braces to pay a deposit for a new apartment set at the high cost of $4,000 because of the mother's poor credit.
"I don't know how we did it. I don't know how we survived," said the father.
Because of the father's order to remain outside the home during therapy, social workers subpoenaed apartment building security videos and made almost daily visits to ensure he was not living there. During one such visit, the children alleged that the workers improperly ordered them to disrobe in a common area to check for bruising.
Pellman's rebuke of the county's actions in the case was delivered in a hearing attended by The Times. Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County's juvenile courts, issued a blanket order allowing news coverage of previously confidential dependency courts this year.
The hearing was scheduled to consider financial sanctions against the department, and she noted that the social workers' actions occurred when the mother appeared to be finally succeeding against the odds.
"You are there to support this family, not harass them," Pellman told case supervisor Juliet Macias and social worker Eleanor Clements at the hearing. "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's use of the sanctions process is a judicial power that judges have increasingly exercised in recent years against the department. From 2010 to 2011, sanctions nearly doubled from $25,000 to $48,000, most often because of late or missing court-ordered reports on some of the 35,000 children under the department's oversight.
Pellman has two decades of experience in child welfare and once led the highly regarded Alliance for Children's Rights, using her position as legal director to press the county to conduct more frequent visits to children removed from their families and placed in foster care.
In this case, she decided she was unable to impose sanctions because she said the retaliation likely violated the department's own policies, not one of her court orders.
Still, she said she hoped the proceeding would provoke "soul searching." If she had sent the case file to DCFS Director Philip Browning, she said, "frankly, I think he would be concerned."
Browning's spokesman, Armand Montiel, said the department has launched an internal affairs investigation. "I can say clearly and unequivocally that any form of retaliation, biased or disparate treatment of any parent or child in our caseloads by a social worker is against our practices and will not be tolerated," he said.
"Judge Pellman is correct that the actions as described would be very disappointing to Mr. Browning," Montiel said. "They would also be disappointing to all of our social workers who provide caring and effective services to our children and families."
So far, however, the more visible response has been against Pellman. County lawyers who represent the department have moved to disqualify her from taking new cases.
At Pellman's May 17 hearing to consider sanctions, Deputy County Counsel Anthony Peck argued that the judge was biased, and he suggested she take a recess to read the case file more fully. The calls to the landlord and the school, Peck said, were simply intended to find the family, make sure the children were safe and ensure compliance with the order barring the father from living in the home.
Marlene Furth, director of the court-appointed firm that represented the mother, rejected that account and called it an "outrageous case" of retaliation that she sees too often. It is "not a daily occurrence, but it is also not highly unusual," she said in an interview.
"The problem that exists," she said, "is that there are very very many dedicated workers and they work extraordinarily hard to reunify families, and then there are many workers who don't — either because they are burned out, overworked or reached a point where they don't care."
Pellman said in an interview that she sympathized with social workers. "This conflict between being the policeman and the social worker is really difficult for people, and it's a very complex emotional position."
"I believe," she said, "that some of the social workers who are hired are very young and not as educated and not as culturally sensitive and worldly, shall we say. It's really difficult for them to be ready for this complex job."
On June 12, court referee Robert Stevenson held a hearing to terminate the county's oversight of the family, and he applauded the family's progress. Peck was overruled when he argued that the family should remain under the department's active watch because the father continued to pose a threat of domestic violence.
"I believe that for some reason this case has had a life of its own," Stevenson said. "It's unfortunate but we're ready to cut it out right now. Just understand," he said to the parents, "that the department will be at some point trying to evaluate your situation. You need to be aware of that."
The mother said she was.
"Look, I have eight kids and we live in deep poverty," she said in an interview. "I know someone is going to call DCFS at some point out of misguided concern, and I'm sure my name will pop up on their computer in red."
Source: Los Angeles Times