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Parents get $800K settlement after county officials remove their children without a warrant

The County of Los Angeles' official seal included a tiny cross for nearly half a century, until it was changed in 2004.
via Wikimedia Commons
LA County agrees to pay $800,000 to parents of kids who were removed from home.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday agreed to pay $800,000 to the parents of two children taken from their home by a Sheriff’s deputy and social workers.

The payment settles a civil rights lawsuit that claimed the children were wrongfully removed from the parent’s San Gabriel Valley residence four years ago. The children were returned four months later.

In their lawsuit, Sebastian Xoss and Mirtha Lopez accused the county of the “baseless, unreasonable, and unlawful” removal of their 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son from the hotel where they were staying on Feb. 10, 2011. They had gone to the hotel in part to escape suspected abuse of the daughter by a relative of Lopez, according to the lawsuit.

Social workers with the Department of Children and Family Services claimed the parents “created a detrimental and endangering home environment” for the children by failing to provide nourishing food and immunizations, the lawsuit states. They also accused Xoss of having untreated mental health issues that were a danger to the children.

A deputy from the Sheriff’s Department’s Special Victims Bureau and social workers were responding to a report of abuse, according to a case summary prepared by the county counsel. It is unclear who filed the report.

But the parents said the allegations were fabricated and that they were raising their children “in a loving, emotionally, academically, and financially supportive, intact nuclear family.”

In their lawsuit, the parents accused the deputy and social worker of entering their hotel without a search warrant or “exigent circumstances” showing the children were in danger. The lawsuit describes the deputy mocking the parents for not immunizing their children based on religious beliefs and homeschooling them. It accuses him of coercing the parents into a search of their hotel room.

“You could lose your kids forever,” he allegedly threatened.

“We don’t comment on litigated matters,” said Neil Zanville, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services. A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department did not return calls for comment.

“No employee misconduct was suspected and no systemic issues were identified,” the county counsel’s case summary said. At the same time, it said the Sheriff’s Department intends to issue a newsletter “designed to educate members of the necessity to obtain a warrant where insufficient exigency exists for warrantless action.”

Asked about the size of the settlement, Senior Assistant County Counsel Patrick Wu said the county anticipated large attorney’s fees if it lost the lawsuit. “If you have a civil rights issue, under federal law you can ask for attorneys fees,” he said.

The payout comes amid increased scrutiny of how the county handles children who are in danger of being abused by parents. A blue ribbon commission was formed after the death of Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale. The 8-year-old allegedly died at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Relatives have accused government workers of not doing enough to protect the child.

The commission has made a series of recommendations, including the creation of a Child Protection czar. The Board of Supervisors has yet to hire one, nearly a year after the recommendation.