L.A. County orders agencies to cooperate in probe of leaks about child deaths

In a contentious 4-1 vote, Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday ordered county departments to cooperate with an investigation into what they called the “inappropriate disclosure of confidential child welfare information” to the Los Angeles Times regarding the deaths of children who were being monitored by county workers.

Tuesday’s vote came after supervisors acted in closed session in recent weeks to begin an investigation — without disclosing the action to the public. In a letter last week to the supervisors, William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, raised concerns that the previous closed-door discussions may have violated the Brown Act, a state law that protects the public’s right to participate and be informed of meetings of local legislative bodies.

For more than a year, The Times has reported on the deaths of children whose families had previously come to the attention of the county Department of Children and Family Services because of allegations of abuse or neglect.

The investigation ordered by the supervisors came after the department’s director, Trish Ploehn, complained that information obtained by The Times was causing a morale problem in her agency, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Yaroslavsky, the lone no vote, rebuked Fujioka and top child services officials for wasting time on pursuing a way to “plug the leaks.”

“The obsession with leaks, seems to me, exceeds the obsession with child deaths,” Yaroslavsky said.

“You can try till you’re blue in the face to try to identify who leaked what. And all the energy that is spent on that is energy that is not spent on trying to figure out what is going wrong in the Department of Children and Family Services,” he said. “Why does a social worker who knows enough to pull a kid who has threatened to commit suicide, an 11-year-old kid, why didn’t they pull that kid from his parent? It’s a legitimate question.”

“We haven’t really focused on that question. We focused on the leaks,” he said.

Yaroslavsky was referring to the Times report last month on the suicide of 11-year-old Jorge Tarin, who hanged himself in a closet of his Montebello home on June 8. Jorge killed himself just hours after county workers were sent to the home to interview him after he told a school counselor that he wanted to kill himself. It was the last in a string of visits by county social workers, who had previously noted drugs, violence and neglect in homes Jorge had lived in since infancy.

The Times reported that county officials who left that day without Jorge were unaware that his stepfather, who opened the door, was barred under a court order from living in the home — among the facts that might have led them to remove the boy.

On Tuesday, Fujioka adamantly denied that county officials were more concerned about whether “confidential information is leaked” than fixing problems in the department. But, he said, “we have an equal obligation to those families to keep some of this information confidential.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called Yaroslavsky’s rebuke a “cheap shot” and defended the inquiry as necessary because “the quote unquote leaks do in fact compromise the effective management and pursuit of problems in DCFS. They are not helping address the problems. They are creating more in the way of distraction.”

Supervisor Gloria Molina said the county is “not trying to hide anything from anyone with regard to, regretfully, these children’s deaths.” However, she said officials are bound by law to keep some information confidential.

After The Times began writing about child deaths, the disclosure of records slowed dramatically, despite a 2007 state law that made the release of such documents mandatory in most cases. Of the 23 most recent deaths resulting from abuse or neglect, the department has released records in only two cases, and those records were limited.

Earlier this month, a senior deputy county counsel declared the topic of child fatalities off-limits at a meeting of the county’s Commission for Children and Families when commissioners asked for basic statistics regarding the deaths. County Counsel Andrea Ordin said later that her deputy erred by squelching the discussion and promised that the data would be released, but the department has yet to do so.

Fujioka said he plans to complete his investigation by the end of this week.

Ordin said she believed Tuesday’s public discussion and vote fixes any potential Brown Act violation.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., disagreed. To resolve a Brown Act violation, he said, the county would have to revoke its earlier, illegal decision first, which was not done Tuesday.

The one-hour discussion on the investigation shed light on a personnel matter related to Ploehn, discussed behind closed doors four weeks ago. The failure to disclose that discussion could be another Brown Act violation, Ewert said.

Ordin disagreed, saying proper notification was made, but she declined to point to a specific agenda item on the matter.

Times staff writer Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.