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Who Best to Protect Children? : After Boy’s Death, Social Workers Press for Right to Take Abuse Victims From Home Without Police OK

Times Staff Writer

Social workers did not believe 5-year-old Amos Wilson when he told them he had been badly bruised in a bicycle accident. They were convinced he had been beaten.

The social workers wanted Amos temporarily removed from his home so they could investigate. But in Kern County only law enforcement officers have the authority to make those decisions. And in the Amos Wilson case, despite repeated requests by social workers, the Sheriff’s Department decided not to remove the boy from his home.

Two weeks later Amos died of head injuries and his mother’s boyfriend was charged with murder.

Now, some social workers and other advocates for children are arguing that Amos Wilson’s death tragically illustrates flaws in California’s child welfare laws.

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The two social workers who interviewed the child in November and their supervisor on the case all had master’s degrees in social work and more than 10 years’ experience. All three were child-abuse specialists. Yet they had no authority over the child’s welfare. They had to defer, initially, to a deputy sheriff with no training or experience in child abuse.

“If social workers in this county were given the power that common sense tells us they should have, that child would probably be alive today,” said Scott Grey, who worked as a Kern County social worker for 20 years and retired in November. “These are life and death decisions. Why exclude the people who are best qualified to make these decisions?”

In most states, social workers make “the primary decision” on whether to remove children from abusive homes, said Michael Wald, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in children and the law.

But California law is vague, and counties throughout the state interpret the law differently. For example, in Los Angeles County, both social workers and police are allowed to remove children from homes in potentially dangerous situations.

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“It doesn’t make sense to only give the authority to the police,” said Jeanne Giovannoni, a professor of social welfare at UCLA and author of “Defining Child Abuse.”

“The police’s first priority is to determine if a crime has been committed. The social worker’s first priority is to determine if the child is safe. A child could be in imminent danger without a crime having been committed.”

Kern County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Steve Mettler acknowledged that his department made the wrong decision in the Amos Wilson case. But he said his officers acted appropriately and conducted conscientious investigations. But Amos, he said, had a “highly unusual presence about him for a 5-year-old and was able to snow two professional policemen.”

Social workers do not blame the Sheriff’s Department for the child’s death. They blame the system. And Mettler said he also believes that the system should be changed.

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“I’ve never been able to figure out why social workers can’t make those kinds of decisions,” Mettler said. “We have no objection to giving them authority in that area.”

Under state law, the board of supervisors in each county defines the authority of social workers in such cases. But while social workers in Kern County--and even some Sheriff’s Department officials--say the system should be changed, county administrators disagree.

William Carter, program manager of the county’s Child Welfare Services, declined to discuss the case because of confidentiality requirements in child-abuse investigations. But he said disagreements are rare between law enforcement and social workers. And because the system has “worked so well in the past,” Carter said he is not recommending any changes.

Kern County social workers have more restrictions than those in most other counties. For example, while state law clearly permits social workers to remove children from homes in cases of severe neglect, Kern County does not allow it.

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“In Bakersfield, people aren’t in the habit of questioning cops,” said a Kern County social worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The administrators in our department will not challenge law enforcement on anything. They’re very comfortable letting law enforcement make all the important decisions.”

The Amos Wilson investigation began when his kindergarten teacher at Wayside School in East Bakersfield noticed the boy’s bruises. School officials contacted the county.

Two social workers arrived at the school and interviewed Amos. The boy told them that he fell off his bicycle, but he appeared nervous and changed details of his story several times, according to sources close to the case. (The social workers on the case declined to comment because of confidentiality requirements.)

Social workers know that abused children often are threatened at home and are afraid to tell the truth. And it was obvious to the social workers on the case that Amos’ bruises were not consistent with a bicycle fall.

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After they conferred with their supervisor and determined that Amos could be in danger, they called the Sheriff’s Department, which sent a deputy to the boy’s home to investigate.

Amos told the deputy that he fell off his bicycle into a rose bush but had no explanation of why he was not scratched, according to court records. The deputy then interviewed Thomas Wineland, 31, who cared for Amos while his mother worked the evening shift at a motel coffee shop. Wineland, the mother’s live-in boyfriend, also stated that Amos had been in a bicycle accident, but added that the boy had suffered some of the facial bruises in a fight with other children. Amos’ mother told the deputy that she was unaware of any problem between her son and Wineland.

The social workers recommended to the deputy that Amos be temporarily removed from his home. But the deputy said that without a statement from Amos indicating he had been beaten, he could not remove the boy, sources said.

“To rely on the child’s statement is a naive approach and shows why you need trained people making these kinds of decisions,” said Margaret Brodkin, executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children, a San Francisco children’s rights organization. “More often than not, a child--especially a young child--will not give authorities a statement. Maybe the child was threatened and told he’ll get a worse beating if he talks. You need somebody trained in the field to pick up the signs and indirect hints of a frightened, confused child.”

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The social workers and their supervisor, in what sources describe as a very unusual action, twice called the deputy’s supervisor to request further investigation. The supervisor assigned a detective in the sheriff’s child-abuse unit to the case.

The detective interviewed Amos at the school. But the boy stuck to his statement and the investigation was dropped, a sheriff’s spokesman said.

The next contact sheriff’s deputies had with Amos was two weeks later when they were called by doctors at the Kern Medical Center. Amos was brought in unconscious and died the next day.

Wineland, who was arrested the night Amos was taken to the hospital, told deputies that he was angry with Amos “for not saying his ABCs properly,” so he pushed the boy, who fell backwards and hit his head on a coffee table. But at a preliminary hearing Dec. 12, a doctor who is a child-abuse expert testified that Amos was struck on the base of the skull by a blunt object and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. At the time of his death, Amos had bruises and welts on his chin, shoulders and all over his back, buttocks and thighs. Wineland has pleaded innocent and is being held in Kern County Jail.

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Temporarily removing children from homes where abuse is suspected serves a number of purposes, said Brodkin of Coleman Advocates for Children. Abused children often do not feel safe enough to speak truthfully if they are left in a threatening environment, she said, and it often takes time for social workers or police officers to build rapport with children so they can find out what is happening at home. And, Brodkin said, sometimes the child simply needs to be put in protective custody to prevent a much more serious beating.

California Welfare and Institutions Code language on the authority for removing a child from home is interpreted differently by different counties, said Elisabeth Brandt, a supervising state deputy attorney general who specializes in child-abuse legislation. Brandt said in her view, the law allows social workers to remove children from the home in some instances, but not in cases of physical abuse. However, she acknowledges that some counties do permit social workers to make the decision.

For example, while Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara counties allow their social workers to remove children from homes, Orange County does not. Counties that restrict social workers’ authority say they do so primarily for safety reasons. It is often dangerous taking children away from abusive parents and having officers along provides a measure of protection. But social workers say they have enough training to determine potentially dangerous situations and, if needed, they can always ask officers to accompany them.

Few Vigorous Disputes

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Although California law differs from most other states regarding social workers’ authority to remove children from homes, there has been no big push in the past to change the legislation, said Wald of Stanford Law School. Heated disputes between law enforcement and socials workers are rare, he said.

But one Kern County social worker, who requested anonymity, said there would be more disputes, but many social workers simply do not bother asking officers to remove some children because they know that the officers will refuse.

“I’ve had a few cases where the evidence was pretty dramatic,” the social worker said. “But because I didn’t have a statement . . . from the child telling me who had abused him, I knew the cops wouldn’t pull him from the home. . . . I was too overloaded with cases to go through the whole appeal process, so I just went on to the next case. And every day I’d pray I wouldn’t see the kid the next morning in the obituaries.”


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