Update on the Melinda Smith Foster Care Case

Background: The Melinda Smith/Thomas Smith Los Angeles foster care outrage is one of the most egregious child welfare injustices I’ve ever seen. In my co-authored column, Choosing Foster Parents over Fathers (San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/11/07), I explained:

“In the heartbreaking Melinda Smith case, a father and daughter were needlessly separated by the foster care system for over a decade. Last week, Los Angeles County settled a lawsuit over the case for an undisclosed sum…

“Smith was born to an unwed couple in 1988. Her father, Thomas Marion Smith, a former Marine and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, saw Melinda often and paid child support. When the girl was four, her mother abruptly moved without leaving a forwarding address. Two years later, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services found that Melinda”s mother was abusing her. Though the social worker for the case noted in the file that Thomas was the father, he was never contacted, and his then 6-year-old daughter was placed in the foster care system.

“Thomas–whose fitness as a father was never impugned nor legally questioned–continued to receive and pay his child support bills. Authorities refused to disclose his daughter”s whereabouts, and didn”t even inform him that his daughter had been taken by the County. Smith employed private investigators and attorneys to try to find Melinda and secure visitation rights, but he eventually ran out of money.

“Rather than allowing Smith to raise his own daughter, the system shuttled Melinda through seven different foster care placements. An understandably angry child, her outbursts led authorities to house her in a residential treatment center alongside older children convicted of criminal activity–when she was only seven years old.

“Melinda says that during this period she was told that her father was a ‘deadbeat dad’ who had abandoned her. When Melinda was 16, she told an investigating social worker that the ‘most important thing’ for her was to find her dad. Moved by her story, the social worker began searching for Melinda”s father–and found him in one day. In 2005, Thomas and Melinda were finally reunited.”

The terms of the settlement in this case are revealed in a recent Los Angeles Daily News article, and apparently Smith is going to receive $225,000 from Los Angeles County. I don’t know much about how these settlements are done, but I’m surprised–Smith should be paid millions for what was done to his little daughter. I know it’s comparing apples and oranges, but it seems particularly low in light of the millions that Los Angeles County had at one point agreed to pay former firefighter Tennie Pierce over a questionable racial harassment complaint.

As part of their agreement with Smith, the County generously agreed to “forgive” Smith’s fake child support debt, not one dime of which should he ever have been asked to pay. Moreover, much of the “debt” piled up after Smith and his daughter were already reunited, as the County still kept sending him child support bills.

The Daily News article by Troy Anderson, who has done a good job in his pieces on this case, is below.

Child-support case may be settled
Father would get $225,000 from county

By Troy Anderson

A decorated Vietnam War veteran who spent more than a decade searching for his daughter would be paid $225,000 by the county, which mistakenly allowed him to pay child support for the girl although she was in foster care, under a settlement recommended Monday.

The Los Angeles County Claims Board recommended the payment to settle a lawsuit filed by Thomas Marion Smith, who was never told that his young daughter had been taken away from his ex-wife and placed in foster care. The Board of Supervisors will vote on the settlement Oct. 16.

“This is a landmark case having a profound impact on the system,” said Smith’s attorney, Linda Wallace. “At the point of entry, county departments are now notified to make sure children are not lost in the system.”

Lisa Garrett, chief deputy director of the Child Support Services Department, said her agency is working to improve communication with the Department of Children and Family Services to avoid a recurrence of the Smith case.

Smith’s suit claims that county employees were negligent for failing to notify him that his daughter was in foster care. Had he known of the girl’s whereabouts, he would have obtained custody of his daughter and eliminated the need for county intervention.

Read the full article here.

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