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No shield when kids are dying

Of all the manifestations of ineffectual government to which we Angelenos have inured ourselves over the years, none is more insidious than Los Angeles County’s continuing failure to protect the most vulnerable children entrusted to its care.

When some bureaucrat neglects to fill a pothole, you have a bumpy ride; when a social worker screws up -- for whatever reason -- children can and do die, often under circumstances whose savage brutality exceeds normal imagination.

As The Times’ Garrett Therolf has reported, 31 children in the care of the county’s child welfare system were killed by abuse or neglect over the last two years. Trish Ploehn, who directs the responsible agency -- the Department of Children and Family Services -- says that in 18 of those cases, the social worker charged with safeguarding the child’s welfare committed serious errors. At least some of those mishandled cases are among the 12 most recent deaths. Ploehn, however -- backed by myopic county lawyers who seem determined to treat a life-and-death public issue like a product liability case -- refuses to release any information on these last dozen deaths.

Perversely, both Ploehn and the lawyers claim they’re shielded from having to disclose even the names of the dead children -- some of whom may have been killed by their own parents -- by a state law that was passed with the explicit purpose of opening these records to public scrutiny. SB 39, backed by a coalition of child welfare advocates and news organizations, was signed into law three years ago after it became clear that state and local agencies were using outdated confidentiality regulations to prevent anyone from getting an accurate picture of just how many children are killed by their parents or caregivers each year, even though their families are under some form of governmental scrutiny. The law allows prosecutors conducting an ongoing criminal investigation to redact information crucial to their probe but makes no other exception to the need for timely disclosure, apart from the welfare of a surviving child. The statute plainly states that no competing government interest can be balanced against the public’s right to know what transpired in these cases.

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Ploehn claims that she cannot release files on four of the 12 children who’ve died most recently because the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office objects to disclosure of any information, including the children’s names. The state statute makes no provision for such a blanket objection. In the other eight cases, unnamed law enforcement agencies are purported to object to the release of any information. SB 39 does not give law enforcement any veto over the release of any part of these files, though a self-serving guideline drafted by the California Department of Social Services in the wake of the bill’s passage mistakenly says such an exception exists. If the county is relying on that bit of bureaucratic sleight of hand, it’s in a lot of trouble.

Actually, the problems in the Department of Children and Family Services may be even worse than this obvious attempt to avoid public scrutiny suggests. According to sources in the county Hall of Administration, Ploehn also is routinely withholding information on these dead children from the five supervisors and the deputies they’ve delegated to handle child welfare issues. Ploehn, sources say, refuses to share written material on the most troubling cases during her weekly meetings with the deputies and is grudging with verbal information, reportedly because she fears it will be leaked to media.

This factual vacuum is preventing a review of whether the county acted wisely over the last few years when it allowed the child welfare department to reduce the number of youngsters removed from their families and placed in foster care by about 60% to around 19,900. At least some of the supervisors and their aides are concerned that social workers are being discouraged from moving imperiled children to the safety of foster care because spending fewer federal and state block grant dollars on that service frees the money for use in programs more highly favored by the Department of Children and Family Services’ hierarchy.

We’ll never know, though, so long as the department and its director are allowed to hide their mistakes not only from the scrutiny of the media and the public but from the oversight of elected officials who are legally and morally responsible. At some point, the five supervisors need to ask just how long we’re going to go on sacrificing some of our most vulnerable children on the dubious altar of bureaucratic convenience.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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