Lawmakers block effort to make child death records secret

A state Senate budget committee on Thursday blocked an effort by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to gut key provisions of a groundbreaking 2008 law that requires child protection services to release case records after a child dies from abuse or neglect.

California Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne had drafted language for the “trailer bill,” to be introduced as part of the state’s May budgeting process. That approach bypassed the usual committee review and fast-tracked the proposal for a vote.

Following criticism by child welfare advocates, committee staff issued a negative recommendation and members unanimously blocked the bill from moving forward.

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Since the state implemented the original law, reporters have had access to social worker case notes and other files. These sometimes revealed glaring inadequacies in the state’s child welfare system, including instances of social workers disregarding policies and allowing children to remain in conditions that proved fatal.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles County prosecutors filed criminal charges against four social workers who handled the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in the months before he was tortured and killed. The case was first reported in The Times based on information that included documents released through the disclosure law.

The social workers union has staged protests against the criminal charges and worked with the administration to craft the bill that would reduce public scrutiny of the case files for child fatalities. The state child welfare directors association also supports the administration’s bill.

The bill currently under consideration would relax deadlines for the release of records and keep the names of social workers secret. It would deny the public access to original case notes, instead providing abbreviated summaries of how the government attempted to protect vulnerable children.

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The family’s full history with child protective services would also be reduced, and new restrictions would be put in place to remove information provided by witnesses.

State officials said the provisions were necessary to protect surviving children and adults who were not responsible for the abuse, but department spokesman Michael Weston said he was not aware of any cases in which the current procedure had harmed anyone.

A similar effort failed last year, and the Brown administration promised to draft a new bill that preserved current disclosure requirements and expanded access to near-death cases as well. Instead, it introduced language last week that was similar to what failed last year, and officials urged the Legislature to pass it on an urgent timetable.

Since the law’s passage, the state Social Services Department has repeatedly sought to curtail its effect.

In 2013, San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes ruled that the department had issued regulations “inconsistent and in conflict” with the law and had inappropriately limited the release of information.

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