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Sued for Non-Disclosure

September 15, 2011 permalink

Two lawsuits have been filed to get California child protectors to comply with a law requiring disclosure after a child death in state custody. The first enclosed article recounts the foot-dragging used by Los Angeles DCF to thwart the new law. If the suits work, it will mean that disclosure is available to any party with a million dollars to spend on litigation.



L.A. Times suit seeks release of L.A. County child death records

Los Angeles Times sues for the release of records related to the deaths of children under the supervision of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

South LA home
Shown is the front door of a South L.A. home where a 6-year-old boy was found dead after numerous calls alleging abuse or neglect.
Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a judge to order county child welfare officials to release records related to the deaths of children who had been under their supervision.

Under a law that went into effect in 2008, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is required to release records to the public when a child dies after passing through the protective services system.

"The county has received the lawsuit and is reviewing it, but we cannot comment on pending litigation," said Nishith Bhatt, spokesman for the agency.

After passage of the 2008 law, the county initially released records for nearly all deaths. But after The Times began reporting on social worker errors, the release of documents slowed. Additionally, county staffers began to redact the records more heavily, leaving many unreadable.

In 2010, the county's Office of Independent Review found that child welfare officials, working with law enforcement agencies, succeeded in getting records withheld, even though police investigators hadn't first reviewed the files. The result has been blanket roadblocks to disclosure that resulted in "a virtual paralysis of the [law's] intent," according to a report by the county watchdog office's lead attorney, Michael Gennaco.

County officials promised to follow Gennaco's recommendations and improve the flow of information. But more than a year later, the changes have not been implemented.

In addition to The Times' suit, child advocates on Wednesday sued the California Department of Social Services in San Diego County Superior Court, seeking to overturn regulations they say unlawfully allow counties to keep secret possible causes of deaths among children whose safety is supposed to be monitored by government agencies.

The lawsuit by the Children's Advocacy Institute alleged that the state rules unlawfully obstruct disclosure of key documents in child fatality cases. The suit targets regulations that require a coroner to decree with complete certainty that a specific act of abuse or neglect killed a child before case records can be publicly released. That standard improperly excludes cases in which mistreatment, such as malnourishment, was a potential contributing factor, the suit says.

Source: Los Angeles Times

State sued over releasing info on children who die in foster care

SAN DIEGO — A lawsuit filed Wednesday by a prominent child advocacy group in San Diego contends the California Department of Social Services has fashioned new regulations that thwart a state law requiring counties to divulge more information about children in the child welfare system who die from abuse or neglect.

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, argues that several regulations the department adopted to comply with a state law passed in 2007 will actually result in less information being released about child deaths.

Child advocates say the issue is key because more public information about the circumstances surrounding child fatalities can lead to improvements in the care of children and reforms in the child welfare system.

“Knowledge is power,” said Robert C. Fellmeth, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. “This kind of information gives us leads on what we need to do to prevent child deaths in the future.”

Oscar Ramirez, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services, declined to comment to the suit, citing an agency policy that prevents commenting on pending litigation.

Fellmeth’s group conceived and pushed for the successful adoption of the law, known as SB 39. Previously, almost all information about the deaths of children who had come in contact with the child welfare system were confidential.

The new law laid out a three-step disclosure process that broadens the information that can be released. That included, for example, reports of any previous contact with child welfare officials and information about the licensing history of a foster care home if the child died or was injured while in that kind of care.

The lawsuit contends that some of the rules the social services agency drew up for counties to implement the law do not comply with the goal of releasing more information. One rule says information can be released only if the agency determines the injuries were caused by a parent, guardian or foster parent in the home the child was living in at the time.

The law has no such conditions, Fellmeth said. The regulation means that no information would be released if the injuries were caused by live-in boyfriends, grandparents or others, he said.

Another regulation targeted in the suit says information would not be disclosed if a child dies or was injured in a day care facility that is not in a home. Again, Fellmeth said, the law did not contain any such distinction.

The suit also identified two other regulations, one that requires local law enforcement to be consulted before any documents are released, and another that says information can only be released if the medical examiner concludes the immediate cause of death was abuse or neglect.

That would rule out disclosure cases where children who are malnourished and neglected for a lengthy period of time die for some other reason identified by the medical examiner.

The plaintiff in the suit is Robert Butterfield, a founding board member of the child advocacy group Promises2Kids, which used to be called the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation of San Diego. The suit asks the court to strike out the rules.

Fellmeth said child advocates have tried to negotiate with the Department of Social Services to modify the regulations but were not successful in changing the four identified in the suit.

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune