L.A. must do a better job of meeting the mental health needs of the county's 40,000 foster children, a federal judge ordered. The November ruling is the latest step in a lawsuit that struck down California's practice of confining foster children with mental health needs in hospitals and large group homes rather than providing services that let them stay in their own homes and homelike settings.

The order found that the county's proposed plan failed to reach the 23,000 children in the foster care system.

The ACLU/SC and five other law firms represent more than 80,000 children in foster care statewide with serious mental health care needs. In 2002, the plaintiffs reached a settlement with Los Angeles County, one of the defendants, in which the County agreed to improve services and create and fund a panel of expert advisors.

Last year, experts found L.A.'s system, the nation's largest, was lagging on its promised plan for community-based services. Research shows an estimated 60 to 85 percent of children in foster care nationwide have significant mental health needs.

Highlights of the judge's order include:

· Screening the 17,000 children in foster homes

· Reaching the 6,000 children placed in foster family agencies

· Studying how many children in foster care need mental health services

· Expanding therapeutic foster care and "wraparound" services for children with extreme emotional and behavioral problems.

Wraparound services allow children to remain in their home and community by connecting families and foster parents with comprehensive services such as child welfare, health, mental health, educational and juvenile justice. To learn more about these programs, read a fact page at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.