California lawmakers block effort to make child death records secret

California lawmakers block an effort to make child death records secret

A state Senate budget committee on Thursday blocked an effort to gut key provisions of a groundbreaking 2008 law that requires child protection services to release case records after a child dies from abuse or neglect.

California Department of Social Services officials had drafted language for the “trailer bill,” to be introduced as part of the state’s May budgeting process. That approach would have bypassed the usual committee review and fast-tracked the proposal for a vote.

Following criticism by child welfare advocates, committee members issued a negative recommendation and unanimously blocked the bill from moving forward.

Since the state implemented the original law, reporters have had access to social worker case notes and other files. These sometimes revealed glaring inadequacies in the state’s child welfare system, including instances of social workers disregarding policies and allowing children to remain in conditions that proved fatal.

One provision of the proposed revision of the law would have denied the public access to original case notes with social workers’ names, instead providing abbreviated summaries of how the government attempted to protect vulnerable children. Critics also criticized what would have been relaxed deadlines for the release of certain records.

The Senate lawmakers recommended that the department return to the drawing board and vet the measure through the usual committee process “to ensure that lengthier time of discussion is provided and that the proposed language does not represent a retreat from, or complicates, existing practice.”

Pete Cervinka, the social services deputy director who led efforts to craft the bill, said much of the criticism was overblown and that he had hoped the bill, in practice, would increase the amount of information released in child fatalities.

Cervinka noted that the bill would have for the first time provided information about cases in which someone injures or neglects a child to the point that they are “near death.” The federal government has been prodding the state to do this—and holding back some federal money until it happens.

He said the starting point for future attempts to address that issue would be the existing law, not the recent drafts of the new bill, adding that the department would work harder to build consensus among various groups, including nonprofit child welfare groups, lawyers for parents of children in foster care and unions representing social workers.

Child welfare advocates said that any legislation for the “near fatalities” should be crafted in a way that does not affect the 2008 law’s procedures for disclosing records detailing what happened to cause a child’s death. Child welfare agencies had resisted the law, while journalists and some child advocates supported it.

“We must not accede to the protectionism of the establishment,” said Robert Fellmeth, who was among the attorneys who worked for years to win the mandate to disclose such information.

He said that making these records public is perhaps the only effective measure to fix problems when agencies make mistakes.

“We have just this: the little canaries in the cage who tell us something did not happen that perhaps needed to happen,” he said.

In 2013, for instance, The Times reported on the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez after he died with his skull cracked, three ribs broken, and skin that was bruised and burned. BB pellets penetrated his lung and groin, and two teeth were knocked out.

By examining disclosed records, the newspaper found that social workers had investigated six reports of abuse but allowed Gabriel to stay with his birth mother and her boyfriend. Sheriff's deputies separately investigated at least four additional reports but did not remove the boy or cross-report the complaints to county welfare agencies. The mother and boyfriend are facing murder charges in the case.

In the wake of Fernandez’s death, a blue ribbon commission appointed by Los Angeles County supervisors said the county's current system was in a “state of emergency,” helping to launch financial investment in the safety net and a series of policy changes.

This year’s proposal is not the first time the Social Services Department has fought against the 2008 disclosure law.

In 2013, San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes ruled that the department had issued regulations “inconsistent and in conflict” with the law and had inappropriately limited the release of information.

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