January 19, 2013

Family claims Sacramento County violated disabled child's rights

Mentally retarded and autistic, Anthony Platz seemed to be headed toward life in an institution four years ago.

Mentally retarded and autistic, Anthony Platz seemed to be headed toward life in an institution four years ago.

His regular emotional outbursts caused him to be shuffled from one foster home to the next, including one where he was kept in the garage.

Anthony, 6, was saved thanks to Larry and Robin Mammen. But their efforts to adopt Anthony and provide him with a home outside an institution nearly didn't happen because of fierce opposition from Sacramento County's Child Protective Services.

The couple battled the agency over a therapy that involved Anthony "being wrapped up like a burrito." The Mammens said the technique quelled the boy's outbursts, but CPS contended it put his life in danger.

Now the Mammens have filed a claim against Sacramento County for allegedly violating Anthony's rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The claim is an administrative action that precedes a lawsuit they say they will file in U.S. District Court.

Much of what happened in the case is detailed in a 120-page file that the Mammens' attorney submitted with the claim. The sharpest criticism of CPS comes from a report filed by the county's Disability Compliance Office.

The office said CPS violated Anthony's rights under federal law and that the agency's actions threatened to leave no option but to place Anthony in an institution.

Anthony went to live with the Mammens in November 2009, when he was 2. The following year, the Mammens challenged the services provided to him by the Elk Grove Unified School District. The dispute was resolved when both sides agreed to a treatment plan for Anthony. But CPS stopped the treatment and filed a complaint against the Mammens with the state.

Child-welfare advocates say it's not unusual for foster parents to have to fight to get care for disabled foster children.

But Jackie Coleman, a senior attorney at Disability Rights California, said she has never seen a case quite like the Mammens' in her 14 years with the organization.

"This family fought harder than any I've seen," she said. "How this family was not supported for what they were doing for this child is unbelievable."

The flashpoint in the Mammen case came when CPS said that a therapeutic treatment that involves Anthony getting wrapped in a sheet was putting him at risk of death.

CPS not only ordered a stop to the treatment, but also filed a complaint against the Mammens with state investigators. The state then issued a violation against the Mammens' foster-care record, threatening their pending adoptions.

Sherri Heller, the county's health and human services director, declined to discuss specifics about the case, citing confidentiality laws. She did say that CPS acted properly to protect Anthony.

'Sensory diet'

Anthony and his sister Madison became the responsibility of CPS in 2009 when their parents were involved in the shooting of a woman during an attempted robbery at a Citrus Heights recycling center, records show.

Anthony had already been in several foster homes when he and his sister were placed in the Mammens' home. His previous foster mother kept him in a playpen in the garage because she found him too disruptive, documents say.

Six months later, Robin Mammen retained an attorney to challenge the school district about the services provided to Anthony. In settling the case, the district agreed to place Anthony in a special school and have him go through an assessment by an occupational therapist.

Anthony has poor attention and self-regulation skills, according to a report from the occupational therapist. He is constantly running and jumping all over the place.

Trying to get him to calm down has proved difficult. His therapist recommended what she called a "sensory diet." The treatment involves a range of activities intended to give him sensory input, such as crawling through fabric tubing and pushing a laundry basket.

One of the activities involved "being wrapped up like a 'burrito' in stretchy fabric or a lightweight blanket," the therapist, Candice Hawkins, said in a letter to CPS.

After several months of treatment, Anthony's condition improved, with fewer outbursts and a better self-awareness, Hawkins wrote in a July 2011 report.

Disagreement over treatment

Anthony's original CPS caseworker was aware of the treatment and supported it, concedes Heller, the health and human services director.

But when Anthony's case was switched to the adoptions unit of CPS, the agency's position on the treatment changed. In September 2011, the agency notified Robin Mammen to stop the treatment.

She was invited to a meeting of county and state officials to discuss Anthony's care. "The meeting was quite contentious and was not fruitful in reaching any concessions," according to the report from the disability compliance officer, Cheryl Bennett.

"They said I could have killed Anthony," Robin Mammen said.

At the meeting, a CPS official announced the agency was going to file a complaint with the Department of Social Services, which licenses foster care providers, records show.

Robin Mammen said the wrapping treatment is not dangerous because the material never goes over Anthony's mouth. She said CPS filed its complaint in retaliation after she had filed one against CPS with the county disability compliance office. CPS denies its complaint was filed in retaliation.

State and county investigators received endorsements of the practice from Anthony's occupational therapist, his doctor at Sutter Medical Foundation and the head of the Mammens' foster care agency, St. Francis Home for Children.

James Foley, then St. Francis' executive director and now social services director for Amador County, urged the state not to cite the Mammens.

"This is a child who would not normally be in foster care due to his intense behaviors and outbursts but we have a family that has gone far above and beyond and have developed a strong bond and want to adopt this child," Foley wrote the state.

Nevertheless, the department issued a citation against the Mammens for violating Anthony's rights by using the "wrapping technique."

Local official rebukes CPS

In her report, Bennett, the disability compliance officer, criticizes CPS and state investigators for not fully investigating the wrapping technique. Bennett said she observed and researched the practice and found it safe.

Robin Mammen said Anthony's condition worsened without the treatment. He got upset more often.

Bennett argues that CPS was predisposed to the idea that Anthony would end up in an institution such as Alta California Regional Center in Sacramento, which takes care of the developmentally disabled.

Her report includes emails and other correspondence from CPS employees, including its former acting director, discussing the likelihood of him ending up in an institution.

"Instead of supporting the Mammen family in its search for effective treatments for Anthony to help him remain safely in their home, CPS appears to be focusing its efforts on proving that Anthony is unadoptable," Bennett wrote in her report. That's a violation of federal law, which requires placement of the disabled in the "least restrictive" environment, she said.

In December 2011, CPS social worker Robin Rodocker asked a Juvenile Court judge to delay the adoption of Anthony because of the state's finding against the Mammens. The judge agreed.

It wasn't until October 2012 that the judge approved the adoption of Anthony. He now lives in the Mammens' five-bedroom house in Elk Grove with their three biological children and two other adopted children, including Anthony's sister.

As his parents, the Mammens were then legally free to use the "sensory diet" treatment, which has resumed.

The Mammens said they are pursuing the lawsuit against the county because Anthony is entitled to damages and they want to deter the county from treating other foster families as they were.

"No other foster child needs to go through what Anthony went through," Robin Mammen said. "No other foster parent needs to go through what we went through."

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