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State to Audit Court Over Death of Boy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prompted by the beating death of Lance Helms, the state auditor Tuesday agreed to launch an in-depth performance audit of Los Angeles County juvenile courts and other agencies that oversaw the care of the 2-year-old North Hollywood boy.

California State Auditor Kurt R. Sjoberg said he plans to look at a representative sample of dependency court cases and not just the way county officials handled the Helms matter. The inquiry is expected to begin in about a month and be finished this summer.

Born drug-addicted, Lance was under the supervision of county social workers and Juvenile Court authorities when he was beaten to death last year by his father’s girlfriend, who is serving a 10-year prison term in connection with the death.

Lance was placed with his father despite warnings from his caseworker that the boy was at “substantial risk.” The father was not charged in the death, but the case ignited controversy over the operation of the county’s child welfare system.

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Judge Michael Nash, supervising judge of the juvenile dependency court, said he was unaware of the pending audit but saw “nothing wrong with any government agency being reviewed” as long as it’s within the bounds of the law.

Nash dismissed criticism that county officials are hiding behind confidentiality laws, saying “legislators are complaining about a law that they passed.”

Schuyler Sprowles, a spokesman for the county Department of Children and Family Services, said the agency welcomes a review by auditors. “We will cooperate in every way . . . to show them what we as social workers do,” Sprowles said.

Members of a state Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) have sought to investigate the Helms case. But lawmakers have complained that county officials, citing privacy restrictions, refuse to discuss the case.

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Polanco on Tuesday said the county Juvenile Court has rebuffed his attempts to waive confidentiality laws.

“It is critical that a comprehensive performance review audit be conducted with the goal of identifying the major failings of the system,” Polanco said. “It is time to shine some light on the court.”

On Tuesday, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee unanimously agreed to Polanco’s request and directed Sjoberg to conduct the audit.

Sjoberg cautioned that although he has the right to look at the documents in the Helms case, he would be barred from identifying specific cases in his report.

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Still, the auditor said he intends to provide lawmakers “an objective snapshot” of Los Angeles County juvenile courts and other county agencies responsible for dependency court cases.


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