Deemed ‘too broken to fix,’ San Bernardino County child services is sued on behalf of nearly 6,000 kids
A federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 5,800 youths alleges that San Bernardino County Children and Family Services, an agency that was deemed by a civil grand jury to be “too broken to fix,” failed to protect those under its care and at times placed them in danger.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday morning, claims that overburdened caseworkers are unable to perform required visits and inspections of foster homes and that the agency fails to properly vet homes and families where children are placed, sometimes with dire consequences.
“In extreme cases, CFS has even placed children with known, registered sex offenders,” the lawsuit says.
Filed by A Better Childhood, a nonprofit group that uses civil litigation to push reform in child welfare systems, the suit seeks court intervention to mandate lower caseloads and require the agency to create procedures to keep foster children safe and to find them permanent homes. The suit also names the California Department of Social Services as a defendant.
“Child welfare systems don’t have to run as poorly as the San Bernardino child welfare system does,” said Marcia Lowry, director of A Better Childhood. “These kids’ lives have been wrecked by what’s happening in the system.”
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County officials did not respond to the allegations in the lawsuit but said in a statement that Children and Family Services hired 115 social services practitioners in the 2021-22 fiscal year and 67 more this fiscal year to reduce caseloads. The agency is also working with community partners to reduce the number of children that go into the system in the first place, the county said.
According to the statement, the department has also added on-site counseling for staff, in an effort to reduce attrition, and has increased the number of beds in temporary shelters.
A spokesperson with the California Department of Social Services said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit comes five months after the San Bernardino County grand jury called for Children and Family Services to be scrapped and replaced by a privately run center, saying it was “too broken to fix.”
The scathing December report pointed out that the number of children who were physically and sexually abused while in the system increased every year from 2019 to 2021.
“The revelations that there are significant amounts of substantiated sexual abuse and physical abuse cases is eye-opening,” the grand jury wrote. “There are significant and alarming number of cases involving already traumatized children that come into the care of the CFS who have been further physically or sexually abused by a system that was created to protect them.”
In 2019, 34 children under the care of the agency were physically abused, and 14 were sexually abused, according to the report.
L.A. County has hired 11 law firms to deal with as many as 3,000 plaintiffs who allege that they were sexually abused at county facilities.
In 2020, 35 were physically abused and 27 were sexually abused, and in 2021, the respective numbers were 55 and 34, according to the grand jury.
In a statement, a county spokesperson pushed back against the findings and recommendations made by the grand jury.
“We believe that much of the San Bernardino County Grand Jury’s report was built off bits of information without understanding the full context of cases or how Children and Family Services (CFS) is mandated to operate by the state,” the statement says. “The County would like to note that while we appreciate the diligent work of the Grand Jury, many of their findings are not legally obtainable.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday, echoed many of the concerns outlined in the grand jury’s report.
San Bernardino Children and Family Services has faced high caseworker turnover and caseloads up to six times larger than recommended, Lowry said. The Child Welfare League of America recommends 12 to 15 foster children per staffer, but in 2022, caseworkers in San Bernardino were working with as many as 70 to 90, according to the suit.
Children spend an average of 551 days in the custody of the San Bernardino County agency, the suit claims, about 104 days longer than the national average. Foster homes have failed to be properly vetted, and required meetings and inspections are “perfunctory” and “fly-by” visits, according to the suit.
According to San Bernardino County, CFS finalized adoptions of 1,550 children in 2021 and 2022. So far this year, the agency is on track to finalize 745.
The suit also alleges that children have been placed in homes where they don’t speak the language of the foster family.
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“Whether or not a child gets into a good foster home is a matter of serendipity, not a matter of design,” Lowry said. “I’m sure there are people in the system who want to do a good job and just don’t have the sources to do so.”
Although the grand jury found that the county agency had taken action to address the rising number of abuse cases, it called many of the steps “reactive” and not meant to prevent abuse from happening in the first place; for example, the creation of the Open Case Investigation Unit to investigate cases of alleged abuse and hold meetings with law enforcement.
The grand jury alleged that the agency lacks independent oversight.
“Presently, CFS has no local accountability, which allows them to operate behind an air of confidentiality,” the report says.
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San Bernardino County Children and Family Services has been plagued with problems for more than 10 years, Lowry said, but despite blistering reviews and reports like those from the grand jury, little has changed.
“Nothing else is working,” she said about the decision to file the suit.
A Better Childhood has active cases in New York, where it is based, as well as in New Jersey, Mississippi, Oregon, West Virginia, Alaska and Texas. Some previous lawsuits have resulted in federal mandates and federal oversight of welfare agencies.
“A lawsuit may be different because we want the court to really examine and look at the system very carefully,” said attorney Polly Towill, whose firm, Sheppard Mullin, has taken the case pro bono. “We want to prevent disasters.”