Twenty years ago, in a closed court session convened to decide parental visitation issues for a young boy, a Los Angeles County social worker made a statement that startled even the judge. The social worker described a meeting on the boy’s situation in which a question was raised about whether a county report gave sufficient weight to allegations that the boy had been molested. At that point, she said, county lawyers intervened to warn that changing the report could raise “concerns for liability against the department.”
In this case, the social worker’s supervisor changed the report despite the warning. But the notion that county attorneys would raise an issue of financial liability when a child’s well-being was at stake disturbed the judge that day, according to a transcript of the session, and it continues to enrage the boy’s mother.
The proceeding, like almost all such hearings at the time, was not public, and I can only report on it now because the boy’s mother last week provided me with that transcript. (At her request, I’m withholding the names of those involved, because of the sensitivity of the subject.) Her son is now grown, but the shattering experience shadows his mother’s life even today, as does her lingering worry that the county might care more about protecting itself than it does about the best interests of children.
She’s not alone in that concern. The question of county counsel’s role in protecting children while also defending the county from liability remains at the center of a long quest to improve services for abused and neglected children in Los Angeles. The County Counsel’s office wouldn’t agree to talk to me about the issue, but as recently as April, a blue ribbon commission charged with looking at the county’s foster care system included this observation in its report: “Protection of the county from perceived liability at times trumps protecting children.”
In fact, members of the commission found that even their own work was at times impeded by county lawyers. Citing attorney-client obligations, county counsel refused to provide requested case files to members of the commission. The commission described that as a “major roadblock” to its efforts.
That posture has grave implications for any attempt to improve child protection in Los Angeles County, where more than 36,000 children are receiving child welfare services and more than 20,000 have been taken from their homes and are living elsewhere. In essence, county counsel has often taken the position that any acknowledgment of failure or defects in the system opens the door for lawsuits, according to the commission. But without those acknowledgments, it’s difficult to know what needs fixing or how to fix it.
David Estep, acting executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents children in foster care, emphasized that the vast majority of lawyers and social workers with the county do their jobs ethically and are committed to the well-being of children. But given that county counsel is simultaneously representing the county government, the Department of Children and Family Services and social workers, the situation is, he said, “rife with these potential conflicts.”
It actually is better, in some ways, than it used to be. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, before the formation of the Children’s Law Center, county counsel also represented the children in foster care. When conflicts arose between social workers and children, counsel was asked to drop one client. Usually, said Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Juvenile Court, county counsel would choose to keep the department and drop the child. “We’ve always had the question of where the loyalties of county counsel lie,” Nash added.
Even when lawyers act correctly under these circumstances, it can leave lingering doubts. The commission, for instance, cannot know for certain what information was withheld from it, and the mother with whom I spoke cannot be sure that liability concerns did not affect her son’s case. That’s especially damaging because of the bewildering nature of dependency proceedings, where children can be suddenly stripped from their parents and cast into a complex and secretive system.
The system can, as I was reminded last week, leave lasting scars. As I spoke with the mother who brought me this information, she was mostly composed and meticulous. She came with highlighted files from the long history of her son’s case, and she patiently guided me through them.
But as she described her sense of betrayal by social workers and government lawyers, her composure broke. There, two decades after her encounter with Los Angeles’ foster care system, on a sunny morning, in the cheery eating area of a Whole Foods market, she began to cry.