Los Angeles County’s embattled child welfare agency has clamped down on the release of information about 12 recent deaths among children who have passed through the child welfare system.
The decision follows a series of articles in The Times last year that detailed flawed casework. The cases prompted some reforms at the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, including enhanced training for social workers.
But the state law that allowed much of the information to reach the public has been a source of discontent for Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn. She has complained to a reporter that the law unfairly “denigrated” her department by placing such a harsh spotlight on the most tragic cases.
This week, she declined to release any records in the 12 most recent child deaths, invoking a provision of the law that allows prosecutors to keep parts of the records confidential during a criminal inquiry.
Among 31 deaths over the last two years that met the county’s standard for abuse or neglect, Ploehn said she identified 18 cases in which social workers committed serious errors. The group of 12 cases now being withheld includes some of those cases.
Ploehn’s decision had the strong support of at least one county supervisor.
David Sommers, a spokesman for Supervisor Don Knabe, said his boss “adamantly believes the personal and tragic details of a child’s death should not be raked over by this newspaper. He stands behind the expert opinion of the county counsel, who says we are in full compliance with the law, and not the interpretation by lawyers and reporters representing the Los Angeles Times.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law in 2007 to allow public access to information when a child dies of abuse or neglect.
The law’s preamble stated: “Without accurate and complete information about the circumstances leading to the child’s death, public debate is stymied and the reforms, if adopted at all, may do little to prevent further tragedies.”
The law made an exception, however, for instances in which the district attorney states that information might jeopardize a criminal inquiry. Child welfare agencies across the state were ordered to redact such information before release.
William J. Grimm, an attorney for the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, which successfully lobbied for the law, said his agency regularly requests records from all of California’s 58 counties. Two small counties have denied records on as broad a basis as Los Angeles.
“The law doesn’t permit a blanket, across-the-board approach to entire cases,” Grimm said. “It requires the D.A. to go into each case and not just redact everything but redact only those things that imperil an investigation. The sort of response you received in Los Angeles was not the intent nor was it justified by the text of the law.”
In the cases of the most recent deaths, the agency said Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s objections covered the entire files for four children, including basic details such as the victim’s name.
For the remaining eight cases, the agency said unidentified law enforcement agencies covered the entire files.
State law extends the right to object in this way to only the district attorney, but agency officials said they extended the privilege to law enforcement agencies under guidance from the California Department of Social Services.
District attorney’s office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said she polled senior child abuse prosecutors but was unable to find anyone who knew of an objection. She recommended asking the agency for the name of the prosecutor who objected, but the agency’s attorney, Katie Bowser, declined.
“We don’t think we have to give you that,” Bowser said.