AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREPhotos: At LA County Jail, Archbishop José H. Gomez celebrates Christmas Mass with inmates“There are lots of other similar cases,” said national child-welfare consultant Kevin Campbell, who helps social workers find parents and reunite them with their children. “In the time I’ve been doing this, there’s been a couple of hundred of them.” Smith’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and back child-support payments, alleging county negligence violated his constitutional rights by wrongfully separating him from his daughter for more than a decade. “Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case,” said Smith’s Century City attorney, L. Wallace Pate. “There are approximately 7,000 children in (long-term foster care in the county) and I suspect at least half of them have families or parents that would be able to take custody of them if they were notified.” But Lori Cruz, deputy director of the county’s Child Support Services, said that under California law the agency is not allowed to release information about anyone involved in child-support cases. “So while I sympathize with the situation, it would have been a violation of the law for us to provide that information,” Cruz said. “We handle (thousands of cases) annually. Unfortunately, these types of situations do happen from time to time.” For more than a decade, Los Angeles County sent child-support bills to Thomas Marion Smith, and he paid them, believing the money was supporting his daughter while she lived with her mother. But his daughter, Melinda, actually was in foster care, and Smith is now suing the county alleging it hid the truth. Experts say Smith’s is among a growing number of similar cases nationwide now surfacing as child-protection agencies make an aggressive attempt to reunite children stuck in the system for years with their parents. The case prompted the county Board of Supervisors to order the Office of Independent Review to investigate, and OIR Chief Attorney Michael Gennaco said he also plans to investigate whether there are more such cases. The agency currently is trying to reunite thousands of long-term foster-care children with their parents, Department of Children and Family Services Director David Sanders said. “That means we were looking at families that were separated maybe eight or more years ago and saying maybe those family circumstances have changed,” Sanders said. “We can’t just say that because we decided 10 years ago to place a child in foster care that we’re going to let them grow up in foster care.” Smith, a former plumber and contractor who now lives in Pine Valley south of San Diego, said he hired an attorney and a private investigator to help him find his daughter, but they were unsuccessful. “While my daughter was in foster care, I was in front of the district attorney asking for visitation rights and trying to locate my daughter,” Smith said. “And the District Attorney’s Office told me they didn’t have to tell me anything. They knew all the time she was in foster care.” In the lawsuit, Pate writes that Smith’s daughter lived with both of her parents until they separated in 1990. The suit gives the following account of what happened next: Smith, 56, a Vietnam War veteran who received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, agreed to pay child support, and maintained a close relationship with Melinda until the mother moved unexpectedly and left no forwarding address. Smith hired attorneys and private investigators to try to find his daughter, but eventually ran out of money. In late 1994 and mid-1995, Melinda came to the attention of the county’s Children and Family Services agency after two reports of child abuse. After an investigation, Melinda was allowed to stay with her mother. In the case file, the social worker noted Smith was the father – but made no effort to contact him. A month later, 6-year-old Melinda was placed in foster care. In January 1996, the mother told the social worker that Melinda’s father was paying child support. “All the social worker had to do was pick up the phone and get an address,” Pate said. “Instead, she concealed the whole thing, covered it up and never reported that he was paying child support. Instead, she told the court his whereabouts were unknown.” Over the next decade, a series of social workers told judges that efforts had been made to contact Smith, but did not mention that the county was collecting child support from him, Pate wrote in the suit. Melinda struggled in foster care, the suit says, and was placed in a residential treatment facility in 1996. Two months later, a judge ordered Melinda placed on daily psychotropic medication for depression and mutism, Pate wrote. During those years, the suit says, Melinda asked social workers more than 20 times to help her find her father, but they “deceived and misled” her into believing they had looked for him with no success. “It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to live in foster care for 10 years from age 6 to 16, believing you were completely abandoned when you actually had a father out there looking for you and paying child support,” Pate said. During this time, Smith repeatedly asked the county where his daughter was, but the county refused on “confidentiality grounds,” Pate wrote. In May 2005, when a retired social worker met with her, Melinda again said she wanted to find her father, according to the suit. The next day, the retired social worker asked a search clerk to find Smith, and the following day, the clerk faxed Smith’s address, along with his addresses during the previous 15 years, Pate wrote. The retired social worker visited Smith and asked if he wanted to have contact with his daughter. After submitting to a criminal background check, Smith saw his daughter for the first time in more than a decade at a court hearing July 14, 2005. On Sept. 13, the Board of Supervisors made a special presentation to DCFS’ Permanency Partners Program – and the retired social worker who found Smith – for “doing an incredible job in healing and bringing families together.” “Instead of just sending a letter, they went to San Diego and knocked on the door, found the individual and reunited him with his daughter, saving a child from being emancipated at 18 with no support system in place,” Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said. “That child will now have an opportunity for an education, a loving family environment and will become a productive citizen.” In November, a social worker asked a judge to release Melinda to her father. In April, a judge gave Smith full custody. Despite the family’s ordeal and their reunification, the suit says the county continues to mail Smith child-support bills each month. email@example.com (213) 974-8985160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!