Stop the stonewalling
In 2008, 10-year-old Seth Ireland of Fresno was beaten by his mother’s boyfriend and later died of his injuries. Assembly Democrat Henry T. Perea responded with a demand that the state audit his county’s child protective services agency plus three others in California, including the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. There is little point now in arguing whether Perea was merely playing to his Fresno constituents or genuinely seeking constructive change. One way or the other, the audit is on, and if conducted properly it can give the public and county governments valuable information about the performance of four of the state’s child welfare agencies.
But the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is stonewalling. As Times staff writer Garrett Therolf reported last Monday, the supervisors have thumbed their collective noses at the Bureau of State Audits and refused to produce reports dealing with the deaths of dozens of children who came to the county’s attention over the last four years because of abuse or neglect.
Such intransigence and preference for secrecy have a long history in the county Hall of Administration. The board exhibited these traits a year ago when it defied a state law requiring the county to release the files of children who had died from abuse or neglect.
Uncomfortable with scrutiny, or worried about lawsuits, or jealous of their reputations, or otherwise skittish about the possible consequences of allowing the public to see how the county operates, the supervisors decided that no file would be released until their lawyers had established that the cause of the child’s death was in fact abuse or neglect. The DCFS clung tightly to files until they were shown to the district attorney’s office -- just in case county prosecutors wanted to bring charges. Prosecutors responded with what amounted to a blanket objection to disclosing anything. The result: An attempt to examine the causes of child deaths and the performance of social workers in Los Angeles County was thwarted by the board, the child welfare department and the district attorney.
Now, again, faced with a state probe, the county is circling the wagons. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky dissented from the board’s decision to defy the audit, just as he was the holdout on complying with the sunshine law a year ago, but one supervisor’s willingness to allow scrutiny isn’t enough.
The county’s in-house lawyers and outside law firm assert that child death files are protected by the attorney-client privilege. That absurd and outrageous justification for non-disclosure is laughable, or would be, were the consequences not so tragic.
First, many of the files are not privileged at all. The DCFS conducted internal reviews of child deaths, which were then forwarded for review and approval to the county counsel’s office. An after-the-fact sign-off by lawyers cannot and does not render a document privileged. Otherwise, the Board of Supervisors would be able to sit on every ostensibly public record in its possession simply by sending it to its lawyer’s office for a rubber-stamp.
Second, even files that arguably are privileged could and probably should be released. The privilege belongs not to the lawyers but to the client -- Los Angeles County -- which can waive its prerogative, and should do so, in the public interest. It is true that the county’s interests are articulated by the five elected supervisors, but those supervisors have increasingly focused on their own needs rather than those of the vulnerable children, grieving families, responsible taxpayers and hosts of others they are elected to represent. They too often ask their lawyers for advice on how to avoid outside critique and -- surprise -- are told that the matters they discuss with counsel are privileged and beyond disclosure. It’s a boot-strapping argument that locks the public and, in this case, the state out of their proper oversight role. It perpetuates the county’s continuing failure.
The actual rationale for stonewalling the state audit became apparent in a letter from the county’s outside counsel: “Further, your office’s demand that the county produce self-critical documents, and subject them to the bureau’s critique, threatens to destroy the very type of child protection -- unfettered self-evaluation -- that this audit seeks to promote.”
That says it all. The only evaluations of the county will be those it performs itself, and the results of those evaluations will remain known only to the county. Not since the days of Chief William H. Parker’s Los Angeles Police Department has this region seen an institution steeped in such arrogance, insularity and contempt for public accountability. None of the other counties being audited -- not Fresno, not Sacramento, not Alameda -- have objected to the state’s request for child death files.
The state, after all, makes policy and provides funding for the Department of Children and Family Services, and it ought to be able to audit programs that it funds. Defying the audit is a crime. Los Angeles County taxpayers may soon find themselves paying both to defend their county government against criminal charges and to keep themselves in the dark about their county government’s performance.
All that said, the supervisors’ actions may be comprehensible, even if indefensible. Child deaths from abuse and neglect are fraught with emotion and can result in sensational headlines, in newspapers like this one, to which supervisors feel compelled to respond. One more study of fatalities, such as the state audit demanded after the killing of Seth Ireland, steeps policymakers in a swamp of exceptional failures and worst cases. It makes it easy to forget that data show overwhelmingly that outcomes are better for children who stay in their homes -- even with families struggling with poverty, even in neighborhoods with inadequate schools -- than for those removed by well-meaning or backside-covering county agencies. It makes it easy to forget that the county’s most effective and most economical response to children in trouble is to help their families with resources and programs to cope with their challenges.
Some supervisors may fear the release of files on child deaths because they sincerely believe such information will increase pressure from the public or state officials to traumatize more children by removing them unnecessarily from their homes. Other supervisors may believe the files could show the opposite -- that social workers were insufficiently aggressive in identifying the few truly abusive households and failed to remove endangered children for fear of bucking county policy.
In either case, the county is not helped -- children and their families are not helped -- by secrecy and intransigence. The supervisors owe the people they serve to drop the claim of privilege and to bring some sunshine into the dark corners of county government.