The Public Eye

California state audit blasts parental fee program for disabled child care

Martin Smith surveys documents he gathered to defend his case in August 2013  in Davis. He and his wife, Eleanor Pracht-Smith, disputed fees charged by the Department of Developmental Services for their disabled daughter’s 24-hour, out-of-home care.
Martin Smith surveys documents he gathered to defend his case in August 2013 in Davis. He and his wife, Eleanor Pracht-Smith, disputed fees charged by the Department of Developmental Services for their disabled daughter’s 24-hour, out-of-home care. Sacramento Bee file

The state is “woefully inefficient and inconsistent” in its oversight of parental fees for 24-hour, out-of-home care for disabled children in California, leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars unbilled and charging some parents with similar incomes more or less than others, the state auditor said Tuesday.

In a scathing report, state Auditor Elaine Howle wrote that the California Department of Developmental Services’ assessment of parental fees is “riddled with unnecessary delays, lack of documentation, incorrect calculations, and inconsistent staff interpretations.”

The auditor estimated the department fails to bill for fees ranging from $740,000 to $1.1 million annually.

The agency could not provide documentation to support more than 40 percent of fee assessments the auditor reviewed, and it incorrectly calculated many other parents’ fees, the audit found.

The audit comes after The Sacramento Bee reported in 2013 that the Department of Developmental Services had exhibited selectivity in its application of the parental fee law, negotiating fees with parents based on unclear and sometimes conflicting criteria.

The department pursued litigation in some cases but not in others, failing to collect much of what it claimed it was owed.

The Department of Developmental Services coordinates services for more than a quarter-million disabled children and adults under the state’s Lanterman Act, which guarantees state services to people with disabilities. The parental fee is an assessment parents pay for the care of disabled children who require state-funded, out-of-home care.

The auditor’s report cited outdated and incomplete policies and procedures at DDS, as well as insufficient oversight of the parental fee program.

It said families that had the wherewithal to appeal an initial fee assessment had greater opportunity to present information that might result in a lower fee than families who never appealed.

In a written response, DDS said it “agrees with the majority of the recommendations in the audit” and plans to conduct a formal review of its parental fee program and policies.

The department said it has “historically acted to benefit the family whenever possible in determining ability to pay” under the parental fee program.

“Program staff are keenly aware of the impact assessing these fees can have on a household budget, and therefore, have routinely given as much consideration as possible to each family, even when staff reasoning was not adequately documented,” the department wrote in its response.

George McElroy, a Tracy resident who has been fighting parental fee assessments with DDS since 2012, said Tuesday that the department’s response in the audit represented “the first time that I’ve seen the department accept responsibility.”

“Before this report it was basically excuses, lies,” said McElroy, a senior accountant for Santa Clara Superior Court.

McElroy, whose autistic son, GJ, lives at a treatment center in Los Angeles, had been paying $50 a month until 2012, when DDS notified him the fee would increase to $1,005.

McElroy appealed, and the two sides settled at $400 a month in 2013. Then, McElroy said, DDS increased his assessment to $750 last year. He said the two sides are in litigation over that amount.

Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Stockton Democrat who called for the audit, said in a prepared statement that reforms are needed and that “the findings of this report ensure that parents like Mr. McElroy will no longer be ignored.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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