UPDATE, January 7, 2013: Calling it a "sweeping victory" for child advocates, the Children's Advocacy Institute announced last week that San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith F. Hayes "struck down regulations issued by the state Dept. of Social Serivces that blocked the press and the public's ability to discovered why local child welfare agencies failed to act to prevent a child from being fatally abused or neglected."
Judge Hayes ruled that [DSS] regulations were “inconsistent and in conflict with” SB 39...
“The judge ruled correctly that the regulations impeded the Legislature’s aim of encouraging public analysis and discussion of local child welfare practices in order to prevent child deaths,” said Steve Keane, an attorney at Morrison & Foerster LLP who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiff...
SB 39 ... allows the public to seek to inspect local child welfare documents relevant to what the county knew about a report of child abuse and neglect and what the county did about it. The law strictly forbids any identifying information from being released; the aim is to review systemic policies and practices to test whether they can be improved to prevent future deaths. The law has facilitated public scrutiny and news reporting of systemic child welfare problems throughout the state, but especially in Sacramento and Los Angeles Counties. It was co-sponsored by the Children's Advocacy Institute and the National Center for Youth Law.
Taking note of the Hayes decision, the San Francisco Chronicle, in an editorial on Sunday, January 6, advised DSS to let the decision stand:
... in 2010, 120 children died in California as a result of abuse or neglect. That number is probably much larger, because the number depends on how the state elects to describe the child's death.
That description was at the heart of a lawsuit that Children's Advocacy Institute filed against [DSS]. SB39 was meant to be a simple law - it requires the release of the dead child's case files to the public, with specific restrictions for privacy. But when it came time to make the regulations for the law, things became very complicated.
Despite the protestations of child advocates, the department issued regulations that limited disclosure.
For example, only children who had died at the hands of their parents or guardians were included in the statistics. Children's Advocacy Institute estimates that about 35 percent of abuse cases are being excluded simply because the children are dying at the hands of someone else, like extended family members.
Also, the regulations stipulated that the death had to be the direct result of abuse or neglect - as opposed to a crucial contributing factor. This means that a child who was starving due to parental neglect - but who died as a result of a related cause of the starvation, like heart failure - wouldn't be counted among the number of children whose case files must be disclosed.
There were also confusing regulations on who could release the information that also limited disclosure, and under what conditions.
The institute estimates that without these rules, the number of child deaths that require reporting could double.
That's a stark increase that might embarrass the state and its social welfare system, but that's no excuse. The public deserves to know what's happening to these children, who are our responsibility. Anything less than full disclosure isn't just dishonest - it prevents the public from understanding the scope of the problem and being able to demand effective solutions.
The court was right to recognize this, and it did so in a comprehensive way. The decision was strong enough that the agency may not appeal - as of Friday, the agency had not decided whether or not it would.
We urge the agency not to contest the ruling.
December 30, 2009: Continuing in their series, "Innocents Betrayed," on the failures of Los Angeles County's $1.7 billion/year (7,300 staff) Department of Children and Family Services, Los Angeles Times reporters Kim Christensen and Garrett Therolf end the year with a tragically familiar tale of five-month-old girl, in a household known to "the system," who was murdered, allegedly by her stepfather.
Trish Ploehn (at right), who heads the child welfare agency, would not say if social workers had been disciplined for their handling of Diamond's case, but noted that such action is taken when warranted. Social worker error was a factor in 10 of the 14 deaths in 2008 among children with prior involvement with her department, Ploehn said earlier this year.
Christensen and Therolf, in a related piece in early November, noted that the county was still under-reporting children's deaths, despite the 2008 passage of SB 39, a CA Senate bill that was intended to protect children by highlighting "systemic flaws" that lead to their deaths. (It is that state law that has given access to these reporters to information that has heretofore been confidential .)
The Times reports that "at least" 268 children who passed through the child welfare system died ...between January 2008 and early August 2009. "Only 18 of the deaths fit the county's definition of abuse or neglect, and the result prompted little or no review. Yet a significant number of the deaths involved flawed investigations or faulty case management."
[The death of Diamond Hillman, the four-month-old girl] comes amid growing public scrutiny of suspected abuse and neglect fatalities among children whose families at some point were under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services....
There were 14 such deaths in 2008 and at least that many this year, though some remain under investigation, according to department officials and records recently made public under California law.
The complete series, videos, and photographs may be viewed here.