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Still no plan for fixing billing system for youth in L.A. County detention

September 29, 2009 |  3:43 pm

Earlier this year, Los Angeles County probation officials vowed to fix their system for billing parents of youth in county detention after county supervisors questioned why the department had mistakenly billed low-income and foster parents. Supervisors gave a group of probation and other county officials three months to propose changes, but six months later the group has yet to present a proposal.

Probation officials declared a moratorium on new probation billing Feb. 13 after questions were raised by The Times and children's advocates about improper billing.

Los Angeles County has charged parents $11.94 a day for probation camps and $23.63 a day for juvenile halls for at least 15 years. By law, the county can bill parents and legal guardians of youths held in its 22 camps and juvenile halls for some daily incarceration costs, but only if parents can afford to pay.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said probation officials have been dragging their feet on the billing issue.

"There's a cultural resistance in the probation department to doing what the law requires, which is not charging people who can't afford it," Yaroslavsky said. "It isn't easy to do this right, and what is becoming readily apparent as more people look at this is, is it worth it?"

The county spent $812,000 on a five-person probation fee collections office and $56,000 on an Austin, Texas-based collections agency last year but recovered only $2.6 million of the $23.6 million billed— mostly because of parents' inability to pay, probation officials have said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he was concerned about why the group has yet to return with recommendations.

"I'm trying to get to the bottom of why it's taking this long," he said.

Probation officials met with youth, parents and children's advocates in June to discuss billing, and arranging that meeting delayed the group's recommendations, said Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

According to county records, officials have drafted recommendations that include billing parents based on their earned income — rather than total income, as they had in the past — and improving parents' ability to challenge bills. Both proposed changes are favored by advocates.

But most of their recommendations would expand billing, allowing probation officials to garnish parents' wages and tap their bank accounts, child support, welfare and private insurance, as well as accept payment by credit or debit card.

Probation Chief Robert Taylor said he had not been involved in drafting the recommendations and could not comment about them before the group releases a final report, expected next month.

Children's advocates said the group appears poised to expand billing, which will drive poor families into debt and hurt their chances of supporting troubled youth after they are released from county detention.

"You're actually punishing the communities that can least afford the bills, and we feel that's a human rights and civil rights issue," said Kim McGill of the Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition. "We would urge the board of supervisors that they hear in a real way from families before they make a decision on this."

The board is expected to consider the recommendations Oct. 8.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske at the L.A. County Hall of Administration