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Los Angeles DCFS Defies Law

August 31, 2010 permalink

The state of California passed a law requiring full disclosure of case files following a death in custody of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). After a few successful applications on behalf of newspapers, DCFS has taken to stonewalling requests for information about child deaths. They have little alternative. Truthful disclosure would show that the foster care system is a killing field for children, losing public support and provoking a backlash against incumbent management. The child protection system, which has long ignored the rights of parents and the welfare of children is now defying the law to conceal its wrongdoing from the politicians and the public. Best estimates are that US foster care kills over a thousand children annually. Since the first Gulf War, that is over 20 thousand deaths, a lot more than the number of soldiers memorialized in the photo.



Los Angeles County didn't report child deaths

Officials failed to publicly disclose fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect, an audit finds.

Los Angeles County officials have failed to follow state law that requires them to publicly disclose child fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect, according to an independent audit released Monday.

The violations involve "potentially dozens" of child fatalities, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

"The board has been misled, but more importantly the public has been misled and that is really inexcusable," Yaroslavsky said. "There is only one possible motivation here, other than the right hand not doing what the left hand is doing, and that is an intent to withhold information from the public."

Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn, reached by telephone Monday evening, declined to comment, saying she was still reviewing the auditors' findings. She agreed to an interview with The Times on Tuesday.

The finding by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review comes amid a growing debate about whether child welfare officials are underreporting deaths of children whose families previously had come to the department's attention.

Yaroslavsky said auditors uncovered the discrepancy when they reviewed the case of Jorge Tarin, an 11-year-old Montebello boy who hanged himself with a jump rope in June. In confidential court filings, social workers declared his death to be the result of abuse or neglect, but when it came time to report abuse or neglect deaths to the public, the department left his case off the list.

In the audit, Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, noted a dramatic change last year in the amount of information released by the department, with disclosure in only four of 18 cases. Gennaco said the pattern has extended into 2010. The Times has been denied in repeated public records requests for information.

A 2007 state law requires release of numerous records in such cases unless doing so would jeopardize a criminal investigation. Gennaco found that child welfare officials were asking law enforcement agencies to object to the release of documents before investigators had the chance to review the case files. The effect has been blanket objections to disclosure that resulted in "a virtual paralysis of the statute's intent."

The independent audit was released just days after county officials closed an investigation ordered by the Board of Supervisors into who provided The Times with information about children who died while their families were child protective services scrutiny.

A single-page report on the inquiry written by County Chief Executive William T Fujioka said officials found nothing.

The investigation was launched behind closed doors in what supervisors acknowledged was a violation of the state's open meetings law. It was later approved in a public vote in what supervisors said was an effort to "cure" the initial breach.

The supervisors said they were responding to Ploehn's complaints that The Times had reported on material she described as confidential and inappropriate. Yaroslavsky, who voted against the leak inquiry during the public discussion, criticized Ploehn for pressing for the probe, saying "the obsession with leaks … exceeds the obsession with child deaths."

In an op-ed in The Times last week, Ploehn called it "simply untrue" that the "inquiry into illegally disclosed confidential case information is to mitigate bad publicity or improve social worker morale."

Ploehn said she and her employees had a duty to uphold state law and protect confidentiality. The unauthorized release of information, she wrote, "erodes public trust and contributes to the oversimplification of the work that social workers do. In very real ways, this increases the potential for harm to children."

Fujioka's assistant, Ryan Alsop, declined Monday to say how many staff hours were spent on the investigation.

Meanwhile, there were signs that a backlog of child abuse investigations continues to grow and county officials have acknowledged that some children have lived in a Department of Children and Family Services conference room in excess of the 24-hour limit.

Ploehn had pledged to take steps to reduce the backlog in June, after the death of a 2-year-old whose family was under investigation by her department. According to sources familiar with the case, the county's inquiry into allegations of abuse or neglect had been open for 57 days, exceeding the state's 30-day deadline. By the time of Joseph Byrd's death, the backlog had grown so large that state officials granted a temporary extension to L.A. County, giving them 60 days to close inquiries.

Since then, the number of children whose cases have run past the 60-day deadline has grown by 1,000. More than 13,000 children are the subjects of abuse investigations that have been open two months or longer.

Department spokesman Nishith Bhatt blamed the growing backlog on a rise in the number of calls to the county's child abuse hotline.

Yaroslavsky, however, said the backlog resulted from a "management problem" that indicates "the department needs to better manage the resources it has." He said the agency has 35% more social workers than it did seven years ago.

At the same time, department officials acknowledged that they established a makeshift shelter in a conference room near downtown L.A. with cots, food and a nearby shower, violating a state rule that children spend no longer than 24 hours in agency offices.

Bhatt gave varying accounts of the number of children who had stayed in the shelter and for how long, first saying that "about 20" extended stays occurred since 2009 and that no child spent more than two days in the conference room.

But he later said that 31 extended stays occurred in the room since January 2009, with one child spending five days there before social workers found the child a place to live.

Officials first pledged to address the issue of holding children in makeshift areas in 2003. Two years later, after reports of another 100 children kept too long in temporary quarters, officials renewed promises to fix the problem.

Source: Los Angeles Times

Addendum: The scandal spreads to falsification of death reports. Armed with secrecy, few can resist the temptation to alter facts to their advantage.



L.A. County child welfare official falsified death reports, two staffers claim

The senior managers say they faced a hostile work environment after reporting the alleged wrongdoing to the department's director. County supervisors act to remove child-death investigator.

Los Angeles County's child welfare system, already under fire for failing to report dozens of child deaths tied to abuse or neglect, is facing allegations that an official intentionally falsified fatality reports.

The existence of the civil allegations, filed in June by two senior managers and revealed this week after a public records request by The Times, comes to light as the Board of Supervisors acted to remove the county's independent child-death investigator, according to three sources familiar with the decision.

It was unclear who would replace Rosemarie Belda, who was appointed last year to the position after it had been vacant since 2006. The job, which reports directly to the supervisors, involves the politically sensitive task of reviewing child fatality cases in search of ways the county's case management errors might have contributed to the deaths.

The claim that some child fatality reports had been intentionally misleading was made by Cassandra Turner, a Department of Children and Family Services senior manager who said her superior "purposefully falsified at least three child fatality reports."

"These falsifications, which occurred in spite of my fervent protest, are clearly contrary to department policy," Turner wrote in a civil claim that seeks unspecified damages.

Turner served as an administrator in the department's child fatality section at the time of the alleged falsifications. Her claim does not contain specifics about those cases. She also says in the claim that she reported the wrongdoing directly to department Director Trish Ploehn in April 2008.

After her meeting with Ploehn, Turner said, the department failed to properly investigate the allegations and retaliated by assigning her to less-desirable duties.

She listed Darlene McDade-White, the department's chief internal affairs investigator, as a witness to the alleged wrongdoing. McDade filed a claim jointly with Turner saying she too faced a hostile work environment and, like Turner, was subject to racial discrimination because the two women are African American.

Melvin Neal, Turner's and McDade-White's attorney, declined to offer further detail. If the county denies their claim, the two women will be free to pursue a lawsuit in court.

Asked about the allegations Wednesday, Ploehn issued a written statement: "These are serious claims and they are being taken seriously. These claims are under investigation by the department, and our policy is not to comment on ongoing investigations."

The allegations about falsifications were made more than two months before last week's revelations that the department had failed to comply with state disclosure laws. Those findings were contained in a report by Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the county's Office of Independent Review, who found that in many cases department officials referenced deaths from abuse or neglect in confidential court filings but then left those cases off the child-death lists for public release.

The lack of disclosure hid dozens of cases from public view, giving the false impression that far fewer children were dying of maltreatment under the department's watch. County officials have yet to establish a complete tally of improperly undisclosed records.

The move to end the tenure of Belda, who had recommended at least 25 reform measures for Children and Family Services and the Department of Mental Health in her role as child-death investigator, was made behind closed doors at Tuesday's board meeting, according to the sources familiar with the situation.

The previous child-death investigator was quietly dismissed in 2006 after investigating just two cases.

On Wednesday, all five supervisors — Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky — refused to comment on Belda or the future of the position. A source familiar with the discussion said Yaroslavsky was the only person to speak in defense of Belda.

Source: Los Angeles Times