LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has announced the settlement of a lawsuit alleging inadequate mental health services for dependent children in Los Angeles County's child-welfare system.

A coalition of public interest groups originally filed the suit in July 2002. They included the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Center for Law In the Public Interest, the Bazalon Center for Mental Health Law, the Youth Law Center, Protection & Advocacy, Inc., the law firm of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, LLP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The suit sought to ensure delivery of appropriate mental health services for children currently under, or at risk of being placed under, the jurisdiction of the County's Department of Children and Family Services. Nationwide, an estimated 60-85 percent of children in foster care have significant mental health problems.

"Looking ahead, we hope that every single child who ever finds himself in a position to be a client of Los Angeles County will be benefitted by this agreement," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

"The overarching philosophy of this agreement may be simply stated: the role of the government is to preserve families, not replace them; that children belong in families, not institutions," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director with the ACLU of Southern California. "This agreement was reached in the spirit of holding hands, not pointing fingers."

"This agreement is simply the beginning," said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles. "We all now need to work together to secure a similar positive commitment from our State."

The State of California, also named as a defendant in the suit, has not settled with the plaintiffs.

"This was really an example of the different parties coming together to do what was best for the children in the system," said Robert Newman, staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "Almost immediately after the suit was filed, the County came to the negotiation table eager to work something out rather than dragging it out in litigation. Everyone involved recognized that this was an important chance to make a change in the lives of the thousands of foster children in Los Angeles."

The settlement outlines a set of objectives that the County has agreed to meet on behalf of the roughly 50,000 foster children in it's care, including:

Promptly administering individualized mental health services to foster children in either their own home, a family setting or the most homelike setting appropriate to their needs;

Striving to provide stability in the placement of foster children, whenever possible, since multiple placements are harmful to children and disruptive of family contact, mental health treatment and the provision of other critical services;

Ensuring that the care and services foster children receive are consistent with good child welfare and mental health practice and requirements of federal and state law.

In order to fulfill the objectives outlined in the settlement, the County will agree to:

-- Expand intensive, family-based "Wraparound Services" that utilize flexible funding to meet the individual needs of children and families;

-- Enhance permanency planning, increase placement stability and provide more individualized, community-based emergency and other foster care services;

-- Surrender its license for MacLaren Children's Center and will no longer operate the facility for the residential care of children and youth under the age of eighteen;

-- Immediately address the service and permanence needs of the five plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

Also as part of the settlement, an Advisory Panel of experts in the child welfare field will monitor the County's compliance and implementation of reforms.

"The expert panel's role is to ensure that children will be afforded placement stability to provide the opportunity to form real emotional attachments that all children need, and to avoid being bounced from one inappropriate placement to another," said Lin Min King, staff attorney at the Center for Law In the Public Interest. "MacLaren Children's Center, a shelter that has been used to warehouse children for years, has been closed as a result of this lawsuit. But more importantly, children with emotional and behavioral impairments will be provided services early on to reduce the time they are in foster care, and more individualized, community-based emergency services will be made available to children."

"This settlement exemplifies how dedicated advocates and responsible public officials can--but all too often don't--form a partnership for needed system reform," said Ira Burnim, legal director with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. "Its successful implementation will transform a system that has turned a blind eye to thousands of children with disabilities into one that offers these youngsters the help they need to live with their families, stay in school and have the opportunity to grow up as healthy and independent adults."