Reporter Brandon Stahl on the death of 4 year old Eric Dean

LA County is refusing to release information about the deaths of the most recent deaths of 12 children that have passed through child protection, claiming that the agency has been denigrated unfairly by the media coverage of these deaths. The public will not long stand for this.

White hot issues like this are easily decided and blame will be quickly affixed to the social worker that should have known, filed more accurate and timely reports, and not made mistakes.

Hard to fight that logic.

A sorrowful underlying truth in defense of these humble, well meaning, and underpaid people is that on top of the tremendous strain of large & difficult case loads, they are under-trained and under-supported for the work they do (and yes, I really do mean this – the social workers I’ve met have all wanted to make a difference in the lives of the disenfranchised – and without sufficient help, they cannot do their work effectively).

We as a community have become quick to throw rocks and blame people, while not taking time to look for the core problems, think critically, and work meaningfully to fix them (like we do so very well in industry).

If we ran social services like we run industry, the reporting function would find the bottlenecks, changes would be made, & fewer children would suffer because resources would show up where needed.

Industry knows that spending on plant and equipment and maintenance are a far better investment than collapsed and rebuilt bridges (35W Minneapolis MN 2007).

We as a community are right to demand accountability and reporting. At the same time, we need to provide the resources, training, and measurement tools to manage these systems effectively. Effective institutions are the outcome of study and investment.

We are what we are as a nation because we invested in a timely fashion in the schools, highways, and industry, and infrastructure as it was necessary.

If American institutions are to be defined today by what they actually create instead of what they were designed to create, then child protection services creates preteen mothers and adolescent felons, and juvenile justice creates mentally unstable adults (paraphrasing Kathleen Long Angels and Demons

What is happening in California today result in a terrific backlash against the hardworking and well meaning social workers that are buried beneath caseloads that they can’t possibly do justice to. The growing poverty in LA county at the same time human services are drying up, non profits are unable to deliver basic needs as they have in the past, can only make county workers more frenetically busy and unable to produce effective outcomes (more dead children to be blamed for).

I empathize with their terrible situation. It was not social workers that has brought about the deaths of 31 children in LA county over the last two years.

It was the underlying crime & prisons, drugs, poverty, violence, and the public policies we as a nation have (that most other first world nations approach differently).

Read the LA times article;L.A. County welfare agency refuses to release files on children’s deaths
Officials cite 2007 disclosure law in barring access to data on recent cases. By Garrett Therolf
February 13, 2010
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.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com
Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times


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3 Comments

  1. I think there is a better way to present this argument, but it is not my blog. As for a child being murdered only one person is to blame – the murderer.

    As a social worker who has dealt with large caseloads, but who works for one of the higher paid counties in this state, the process involves many things. You cannot be a good social worker unless 1. You have your masters degree in psych or SW and therefore have a clinical mindset, than a BS/BA who only has a basic understanding. 2. You have to have good insight and trust your instincts. 3. You have to have a passion for social work/psychology and a sincere interest in probing through your documentation (caring about kids isn’t enough in this business) and critically examining the story you get from the parents and family. 4. If you are not organized and efficient at utilizing your time – get another job. 5. If you have not had any psychotherapy in your life and have not worked on your own issues – start. This is a key to dealing with transference/counter-transference issues. 6. Take good notes and write down all your observations (review whenever you hear about a behavior). 7. Learn how to work the court room and how to be a team player – I mean this in the sense that you write good thorough reports and have respect of Judges and Attorneys. If they don’t like you and you are known as a poor social worker it works against the case. 8. BEfore becomming a social worker it is best to have a lot of experience as an undergrad working in shelters, group homes, or other non-profit as a case manager so that you are prepared for what you will experience on the job in CPS.

    These are the main necessities that make a good social worker that I can think of at the moment. The problem in the system is that social workers are overworked and many don’t do anything about it. If you look at the dress code where I work, people look like they just got out of bed. Very unprofessional but this means they are not taking care of them selves. I also find it difficult to engage in very serious clinicial discussions with colleagues because this is stepping outside of the box. The court reports I have read of many colleagues (when I take over a case) are horrendous. There is no effort in filling in the bio-psycho-social, they sweep important issues under the rug in sweet talk and sometimes leave out important pieces. I know supervisors who want you to be “nice” on court reports. “They don’t need to know all that,” one told me. I am in trouble all the time for being too honest. Some of the people that are promoted are not the best social workers. They are the ones who play nice and do what they are told. This breeds more social workers who spend time kissing up rather than playing hard ball and risking standing up for something they think is not right with the system and the case.

    I write under a pseudonym because I am being very outspoken. I like this blog and I suspect the people who read it are in the field already. We know what the problems are in the system. Government workers, mentality, and this mindset is supported by the higher-ups. As I mentioned recently with a Guardian article about social workers in a horrible crime of boys on boys in Britain, the issue is not one persons fault, when it comes to mistakes that are made it is a whole agency mindset. What is allowed and supported. Who they make as their scapegoat. Social Services as a whole needs to set standards that they adhere to. They need better communication, that is globally distributed. I’ve seen administrative changes that are managed in secret and then the social worker finds out through word of mouth. Since management is often the ones who kiss up rather than being good at investigation and reporting, the higher they go, the further they are detached. They need to have more respect of the people in the field so that they understand what is going on when they make changes.

    The only people who will blast me on this are the ones who know they aren’t up to par. The social workers who read this and are as good as I am will know exactly what I am talking about. These kids lives are tough enough. If they can handle the inner cities, foster homes, multiple placements, changes, etc… I can handle the workload. It is hard, emotionally, physically, psychologically and even spiritually but what is the toughest part of the job is management NOT the kids and not the parents. Most people should understand I am not really blaming the social worker but the agency who brings in people who aren’t right for the job.

    In this murder case, you don’t know all the facts, you never will (unless the social worker is your best friend or you are thier hired professional). There is more than one person on a case, i.e., attorneys, judge, social worker, CASA, etc… and while the social worker is the manager, final decisions are made by the judge not the worker. That is why I cover my ass and write one hell of a court report and take dubious notes. Mistakes that are made, in my cases are generally people who didn’t listen.

  2. You keep making excuses for child protective services. NO child should die in state custody EVER. The reason for taking them away from their families was to protect them from imminent danger. How many deaths in state custody will it take before you can admit that the system isn’t working and needs to be shut down? CPS has had over 30 years to prove itself and it has failed miserably even with more funding than ever before in its history. Wake up. Leave children w/ their families and work with them in their homes. Help them find real solutions for their problems not these fake therapeutic services that CPS insists upon. Have a little compassion for these kids and quit looking at them as a commodity for those who work within the child abuse industry. The only children who belong in protective custody are real orphans and real abused children and those children are so rare that we really don’t need an industry to protect them at all.

  3. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in two states (California being one) with almost 30 years experience in child welfare in both the private and public system, and having worked as a line social worker, supervisor, program manager and agency director, I appreciate your desire to give social workers the benefit of the doubt in cases of child deaths. However, your anecdotal information from comments made by some social workers with whom you have spoken, does not move the discussion forward. The issue in our child welfare system failures is a matter of incompetent leadership which does not understand the necessity of accountability and is more interested in keeping their job rather than doing their job. In a career spanning almost 3 decades (I came out of graduate school – MSW – in 1981) I have seen our professional culture change from one which is client focused to one which is worker focused. We no longer expect social workers to “leave their ego at the door” rather, we have supported the whinning and sniveling of young social workers, which is the mark of professional immaturity, rather than mentoring them to put the interests and concerns of the vulnerable populations our profession is supposed to serve above their own comforts and self interests. It is most disconerting that our “leadership” in child welfare systems today support this type of ego centered culture and behavior. Children die in child welfare because of system issues which, in translation, mean leadership issues. Sometimes children die even when everyone does everything right but the bottom line is NO CHILD SHOULD DIE BECAUSE SOMEONE DID NOT DO THEIR JOB!

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