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County spent nearly $13,000 pursuing grandmother's $1,004 debt [UPDATED]

March 3, 2009 |  2:28 pm

Sally Stokes in her home in Compton. Los Angeles County has paid private lawyers nearly $13,000 to pursue $1,004 in debt owed by a Compton woman for time her 16-year-old granddaughter was held in a juvenile probation camp, officials acknowledged today.

The debt was still being pursued this week, county counsel said, despite a moratorium on such billing declared last month. The moratorium was called by probation chief Robert Taylor after The Times and children’s advocates raised serious questions about his department’s billing practices.

The disclosure that the county already had spent nearly 13 times the actual debt owed came at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting as Zev Yaroslavsky grilled county counsel about the billing of Sally Stokes.

Her case is scheduled to be considered by a judge Wednesday in Eastlake Juvenile Court in Los Angeles.

Stokes, the legal guardian for her granddaughter, had appealed the county’s order that she pay $25 a month toward the debt. She argued that because she lived on Social Security payments of $1,650 a month, she could not afford the monthly payments. State law allows counties to bill parents and guardians of minors held in juvenile probation camps and halls for each day the child spends in the system, but it prohibits the billing of those too poor to pay.

In Stokes’ case, county probation officials apparently improperly counted toward her income the foster care payments she received for looking after three other grandchildren.

[UPDATE: Stokes' attorney said later that her client receives state payments for her grandchildren through the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payment program.]

“How did it get this far?” Yaroslavsky asked. “Somebody should have been saying this doesn’t make sense. This grandmother slipped through the cracks of the moratorium.”

Yaroslavsky directed county counsel to report back to him about the legal costs of hiring outside counsel in the case: the Glendale-based firm Lawrence, Beach, Allen & Choi. He also asked for a complete assessment of how many other cases the firm was pursuing against parents and guardians who owed money for their children’s time in detention.

Yaroslavsky said he was concerned about whether the county was spending more than it recouped from parents, about $2.6 million last year.

County Counsel Raymond Fortner told the board that he did not believe the county was spending more than it recovered on the bills. He said he was not sure how many cases were being handled by outside counsel but that it was uncommon and the appeals were usually handled administratively.

Under questioning, Fortner first told the board that the fees encompassed more than just Stokes' case. After the meeting, however, he acknowledged that the $12,800 legal bill was for work on the one case. He said the county had hired outside counsel because "the case involved broader issues."

Children's advocates have argued that legal guardians such as Stokes who have taken in children who would otherwise be in foster care should not be billed for probation.

Read The Times story about this case.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Sally Stokes in her home in Compton. Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times