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CPS Alters Records
August 9, 2008 permalink
On July 21, 2008 four-year-old Jahmaurae Allen was beaten to death in her home shortly after CPS investigated the family. California has a law requiring disclosure of the CPS files of children who die. So how did CPS comply with the law? They altered Jahmaurae's records.
The obvious purpose of the disclosure law is to allow the public to see the failures of CPS, and correct them through political and legislative processes. The alteration of records subverts the very purpose of the law, and facilitates the preventable deaths of future children.
sacbee.com - The online division of The Sacramento Bee
CPS documents altered in abuse case
By Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton - email@example.com, Published 3:30 pm PDT Friday, August 8, 2008
In the 16 days between the time 4-year-old Jahmaurae Allen was beaten to death and Sacramento Child Protective Services publicly released portions of its records this week, the case file was altered to change the original finding in the case, The Bee has learned.
One early version of the report from the social worker, who began handling an allegation of abuse involving the 4-year-old on June 19, described the allegation as "unfounded," two sources who read the document told The Bee this week.
Another version obtained by The Bee described the allegation of abuse of the little boy as "inconclusive."
But the portions released by CPS to The Bee this week under a new public records law do not reflect either of those findings. Instead, those files indicate the allegations of abuse were "substantiated," a finding listed as being "effective 7/21/08" - the day Jahmaurae was beaten to death, allegedly by his mother's live-in boyfriend.
A top county official said today she was unaware of the varying case files until The Bee raised questions, and that an inquiry had begun.
"We're pulling computer records right now to find out what's happened," said Lynn Frank, director of the county's Health and Human Services department, which oversees CPS.
The existence of differing versions of the case file sparked outrage among children's advocates who work closely with the agency. Some had been instrumental in getting the new California law passed, which forces county child welfare agencies to open the files of children who die on their watch.
"This is unbelievable," said Robert Fellmeth, a law professor and director of the San Diego-based Children's Advocacy Institute, which backed the new disclosure law.
"If you don't take the kid (from the home), the only check you have is this - the record of what you did or did not do...," he said. "If you start playing with that and altering that, you undermine the only check these kids have on failure to protect."
Alarm over child welfare employees falsifying or backdating files has surfaced elsewhere.
Last week in Philadelphia, criminal charges were filed against two social workers involved in a case that led to the starvation death of a disabled 14-year-old girl. Workers there were accused by the grand jury of falsifying documents after her death to make it appear as though they had performed their jobs properly.
In New Jersey, a children's advocates group sued that state's child protection agency several years ago for allegedly ordering case files to be altered.
"If this is what happened (in Sacramento), whoever did it and whoever ordered it should be fired immediately," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
"It's dishonest," he said. "It's covering up the extent of whatever errors may have been, and that endangers the next child."
Jahmaurae's death has spawned a Sacramento County grand jury probe of CPS, and the agency itself said Tuesday it was planning to have an independent review of CPS conducted.
CPS has conceded that it should have done more to protect Jahmaurae before he was killed, and suspended the social worker in the case.
At the time, the agency said the social worker "worked in isolation and did not follow established department procedures, such as: required contact with reporting party; required contact with medical personnel; required contact with persons who may have knowledge of the family; and reviewing the case with the supervisor."
Sources familiar with the case say the social worker's entries and narrative about what happened were not accessible until after Jahmaurae was killed. It remains unclear who completed portions of the file.
CPS documents show the social worker evaluated the case after a doctor reported to the agency June 17 that Jahmaurae might be the victim of physical abuse. That doctor reported finding a painful swelling and bruise on the boy's chest the size of an adult fist.
CPS documents indicate the social worker tried to contact the boy and his mother on June 19, going to their Foothill Farms apartment. The worker went to the wrong apartment at first, the documents state, and when she found the right apartment no one was home. She left her card on the door and returned to make another attempt at contact June 21, the documents state, and left her card again.
She finally made contact when the mother called her June 23, according to an early version of the case file that was not released by CPS. The social worker went to see the family the next day, and Jahmaurae told her that the bruise on his chest had come from a fight with his 3-year-old brother. He "denied being hit by anyone else," it said.
At some point, the social worker filed a report that the allegation of abuse was "unfounded," sources said.
In CPS jargon, "unfounded" means the report is determined not to be true, according to agency literature.
But another report on the case obtained by The Bee - also not the one ultimately released by CPS - does not reflect that finding. Instead, that version reads:
"The allegation in regard to physical abuse was assessed by this reporter with a case disposition of inconclusive. This was evidenced by lack of disclosure from the minor that the mother's boyfriend had hit him. Also, the minor's sic were observed jumping off furniture and throwing things at each other."
"Inconclusive" means there isn't enough information to know either way, according to a CPS pamphlet.
However, the documents CPS eventually provided The Bee under the new disclosure law do not contain either the "unfounded" or "inconclusive" findings. Instead, those documents show the allegation of abuse was "substantiated" on the day Jahmaurae died.
Such a finding means "there is credible information to believe that child abuse or neglect did occur," CPS background materials show.
The documents CPS provided also differ from an earlier version of the case file in other ways.
An entire passage in the document provided by a source does not appear in the documents released by CPS, and the content does not appear to be the type of sensitive information that typically would be redacted.
That passage, dated June 23, 2008, discusses what happened when the social worker finally heard from Jahmaurae's mother:
"The mother stated she received my card off the door and called this reporter back. The mother stated she was afraid that this social worker was trying to take her children. The mother stated she is new here from the Bay Area. This social worker told her that I have to see her and the children and do an assessment and then we would talk further. This social worker told her not to be concerned about the article in The Bee Sunday CPS is supportive of families."
That was a reference to an investigative series on CPS that began appearing in The Bee that day.
William Grimm, a senior attorney at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, said he was deeply disturbed by the "unfounded" report on Jahmaurae.
"If a physician sees a fist-sized bruise on a 4-year-old - the red flag automatically goes up," he said. "I just don't understand how any reasonable person could make a judgment other than 'substantiated' - period."
Jahmaurae was the seventh child to die since September whose family had contact with CPS, a streak that has caused concern among elected officials and children's advocates.
The suspect in the case is 26-year-old Jonathan Lamar Perry, a 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound man who was in the apartment with Jahmaurae and the boy's 18-month-old sister. The children's mother was at the hospital late that night with her 3-year-old son seeking treatment for an illness.
Sheriff's investigators say Perry became angry at Jahmaurae and beat him to death, then called 911 and reported the child had had a seizure and was unconscious.
Perry is charged with murder and child endangerment in the case, and also faces charges for the alleged abuse of the 3-year-old. He is being held in the Sacramento County Jail and has yet to enter a plea.
Robert Wilson, executive director of Sacramento Child Advocates, said Friday he "would sure be interested to see how CPS explains" the different versions of the case file. His office, whose attorneys represent children in dependency court, received the same version from CPS that The Bee was given this week.
"This is yet another reason I think an outside investigative body should be looking at this to determine if records have, in fact, been altered," he said.
Fellmeth, a former prosecutor, said the California government code is "very, very broad" and makes it a criminal offense to alter a public record - even if that record won't be given to the public. "You're not supposed to be altering, period," he said.
The proper way to make changes in public documents is to "overlay, or add the correction - not subtract or erase or alter."
"You don't create a new reality," he said.
Source: The Sacramento Bee