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Blackburn v. Sarsfield

November 2, 1981


Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco, No. 731729, Victor M. Campilongo, Judge.

Opinion by Grodin, J., with Racanelli, P. J., and Elkington, J., concurring.


Michael Blackburn through his guardian Aurelia D. Watson appeals from a judgment denying a writ of mandate. The question presented is whether respondent, the General Manager of the San Francisco Department of Social Services, should be directed to pay retroactive aid to appellant pursuant to a fair hearing decision adopted by the Director of the state Department of Benefit Payments. The trial court, in denying appellant's petition for the peremptory writ, concluded that respondent was under no such obligation. We reverse for the reasons stated below.


Michael Blackburn was born in 1958. For eight months during 1974 and 1975 he resided at the Western Institute for Human Resources, a

treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. The City and County of San Francisco, through its department of social services, paid for the cost of his placement there, using a combination of county general assistance funds and state funds from the aid to families with dependent children/boarding homes and institutions (state AFDC-BHI) program. It is undisputed that in addition to the funding provided for his placement at the Western Institute, Michael was also a recipient of supplemental security income (SSI) during 1974 and 1975.

On March 31, 1975, Michael's aunt Aurelia Watson removed him from the Western Institute and returned him to her home. The following year Michael attended the Louise M. Lombard School, a public school for the trainable mentally retarded; but it became increasingly apparent to the school staff that because of his acute emotional problems, he would be better served in a residential treatment facility offering constant supervision.

On June 2, 1976, John Steininger, a child welfare worker at the San Francisco Department of Social Services, wrote a letter to Dr. Charles Agler, Michael's treating physician. The letter provides in part: "I continue to feel strongly that Michael would greatly benefit from out of home placement for a variety of reasons . . . . [ para. ] I spoke to Mrs. Watson several days ago, and she appeared to be resistive to Michael's being placed . . . . I make mention of this because I feel you would be able to encourage Mrs. Watson to relinquish responsibility for Michael and have her help in initiating placement out of the home. Mrs. Watson has frequently stated she heavily relies on your recommendations." In mid-summer 1976 Mr. Steininger received a call from Harry Stratton, director of the Western Institute, who said that Dr. Agler and Mrs. Watson had brought Michael to the institute for a preplacement visit. Mr. Stratton inquired as to what financial arrangement the county would make. Mr. Steininger discussed the matter with his superiors. Following a placement committee evaluation, the county determined that funding would not be provided. Mr. Steininger explained in a declaration dated December 8, 1976, "Their concern was whether Michael was really eligible financially [and] they had serious questions whether Western Institute was an appropriate placement for Michael."

An administrative appeal followed, and a fair hearing decision was adopted by the Director of the California Department of Benefit Payments on May 26, 1977. The decision notes that according to regulations of the department, "a child for whom a placement plan has been

developed" and "who has reached his 18th birthday but is under 21 years of age meets the age requirement for AFDC eligibility if he is participating in either (1) a school or (2) a program of technical training designed to prepare participants for gainful employment." The decision reasons: "Inasmuch as a plan had originally been developed by the county for Michael's placement in the Western Institute and the county had continuously encouraged return to such plan until the time of application for restoration of aid, eligibility for the payment of AFDC is dependent upon [Michael's participation in a school or training program]. [ para. ] A preponderance of the evidence indicates that but for the county's refusal to provide financial assistance, Michael would be attending the Western Institute on a full-time basis. Such attendance would fulfill the [participation] requirement [contained in the regulations]." The decision concludes: "San Francisco is ordered to restore AFDC-BHI to the claimant to facilitate Michael's return to the Western Institute, effective the beginning date of aid had aid been approved or the date from which Michael was attending school full-time whichever is later." (Italics added.)

The county refused to comply with the order and requested a rehearing on two grounds: that Michael was ineligible for AFDC-BHI because he was receiving SSI, and that the Department of Benefit Payments had no jurisdiction because Michael's placement at the Western Institute would have to be funded exclusively by the county. A rehearing was scheduled for August 17, 1977, but the county apparently was not notified. The Director of the Department of Benefit Payments ordered a further rehearing. Meanwhile, on December 13, 1977, Aurelia Watson as Michael's guardian ad litem caused to be filed in the superior court a petition for writ of mandate, to compel compliance with the ...

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