Riverside County’s top child protection official departs amid claims of botched abuse investigations
Riverside County’s top social services official has left her job amid allegations that social workers in her department failed to report and adequately investigate child abuse and neglect claims.
Susan von Zabern, director of the Department of Public Social Services, left county employment Monday morning, a county spokesman said Wednesday.
Von Zabern’s departure, first reported in the Press-Enterprise, follows the posting of an agenda item by the county Board of Supervisors late last month about two lawsuits alleging botched child-abuse investigations.
In one case, a 2-year-old girl was found to have been living with a deceased infant for nearly a month, according to a lawsuit. The other suit alleges that an adolescent girl was repeatedly sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend and impregnated by him at age 13.
The county, represented by an outside law firm, has denied all allegations in both suits in court filings.
Riverside County spokesman Ray Smith declined to comment about the circumstances of Von Zabern’s departure and whether it was related to the two cases, citing personnel privacy issues and pending litigation.
A woman who answered the phone at a number for Von Zabern’s home hung up after a Times reporter identified himself.
In separate civil lawsuits filed in November 2017 and March 2018, attorney Roger Booth alleged that county workers failed to protect the children despite multiple opportunities to intervene. The suits say several county social workers violated the state Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act and breached their “mandatory duties,” including by failing to report abuse to law enforcement.
In the first suit, a minor plaintiff alleges that her mother’s boyfriend repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Even after police and social services officials substantiated her allegations in 2014 and the mother obtained a restraining order against the man, the investigation was closed, the suit alleges.
The man later returned to the home and continued raping and sexually abusing the child, who became pregnant in 2016 and gave birth, the lawsuit alleges.
The boyfriend is identified in the lawsuit as Deon Welch. A 29-year-old with that name was arrested by the Hemet Police Department in March 2017 and has been charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and court records. He is being held at the Riverside County jail on $2-million bail.
“Faced with overwhelming evidence of ongoing severe neglect and sexual abuse and an unsuitable home, defendants did nothing to try to remove Welch from the home, to dissuade him from staying there, to alert the Hemet PD of his whereabouts or to protect” the girl, the lawsuit says.
“In fact, defendants sanctioned Welch’s continued presence in the home by asking him to sign … a safety plan that they drafted” because he was one of the girl’s caregivers, the lawsuit says.
The other suit alleges that a girl, now 4, suffered physical, mental and emotional abuse when she was allowed to remain at home with her mentally ill mother despite regular contact with child protection and the county’s own assessment that the child was at high risk of abuse and neglect.
In April 2016, after a neighbor complained of a foul odor coming from the apartment where the girl lived with her mother, police entered the home and found the girl hugging the desiccated and decaying corpse of her infant sibling, the complaint says. Her mother insisted the infant was not dead but was “faking it” and would soon wake up, the lawsuit says.
Ten social workers are named as defendants in the two suits.
In the sexual abuse case, Riverside County filed its own action in July against the girl’s mother and Welch, alleging that the pair were “actively negligent” and “primarily responsible” for the abuse. As such, the pair should be liable for any financial damages resulting from the original lawsuit, the county argued.
The county claimed that the girl’s mother “was negligent in her supervision of plaintiff and failed to protect her from sexual abuse and rape.” Further, the county alleged, the mother concealed knowledge of the abuse and of the location of her boyfriend.
The mother pleaded guilty this year to three felony charges of willful child cruelty, perjury and assisting a felony perpetrator to escape arrest or trial, according to court records. She was sentenced to one year in jail and four years’ probation.
Von Zabern’s departure from Riverside County’s social services department follows the shocking discovery this year that a Perris couple had held their 13 children captive in their home and tortured and abused them for years, according to prosecutors.
David and Louise Turpin were each charged with multiple felony counts of torture, child abuse, abuse of dependent adults and false imprisonment after one of their children escaped and reported her parents to the police in January. The children had been starved, deprived of medical care and in some cases shackled to their beds, prosecutors said.
Von Zabern said at the time that the 911 call from the child who escaped, which was relayed to social workers, “was the first opportunity we had to intervene.”
Von Zabern began her career with the county in 1991 in its administrative office. She joined the social services department in 1999 and worked her way up to director in 2007, according to county records. Her base salary as director was $257,400, Smith said.
County social workers have complained for years that high attrition and staff shortages “presented a danger to child safety,” said Coral Itzcalli, spokeswoman for SEIU Local 721, which represents them.
“On average they are paid 22% below other comparable counties and this has resulted in an embarrassing 21% attrition rate that ultimately puts the most vulnerable at further risk,” Itzcalli said in an email.
None of the five members of the Board of Supervisors agreed to discuss the cases or Von Zabern’s departure.
Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.
7:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the union that represents the social workers.
5:35 p.m. This article was updated with additional details about the lawsuits and Susan von Zabern.
This article was originally published at 1:40 p.m.
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