May 27, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
California’s child protective agency, the Department of Social Services, has long been one of the nation’s worst. Stories pouring out of the state show caseworkers alternately ignoring serious cases of child abuse or neglect and spending inordinate amounts of time on minor cases or those in which no abuse or neglect were found. And woe betide the parent who asserts his/her rights against the agency. Caseworkers may retaliate, using their power to investigate families and remove children from homes, not because it’s necessary but because their authority was questioned. The DSS got so bad that at least one state lawmaker issued a public call for the agency to be scrapped and the state to start again on its effort to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
As usual with CPS agencies, secrecy is a huge part of the problem. Caseworkers and supervisors know that their actions won’t be subject to review by the public via the press. Only agency insiders will judge their behavior, so caseworkers readily learn to consider the predilections of their superiors, sometimes before the well-being of children. Of course we’d all hope that the two would be the same, but in the arcane world of child protective bureaucracies, that often proves not to be the case.
The secrecy in which DSS actions are cloaked also creates an atmosphere of “us vs. them” inside the agency. Because outsiders can’t know what goes on inside the agency, those on the inside who do know easily come to conclude that the press and the public simply can’t understand the realities, the intricacies of the job. That tends to create a fortress mentality among insiders, particularly when, as inevitably happens, agency behavior comes in for criticism.
Worst of all is that fact that secrecy tends to shield incompetence from scrutiny which in turn tends to promote that very incompetence. When no one is looking over your shoulder, it’s easy to slack off.
And, as in so many child protective agencies, there’s a lot to hide at the DSS. Woeful underfunding and high caseloads make it all but inevitable that children at grave risk will “slip through the cracks.”
So back in 2008, the state made some modest changes to the law that required greater disclosure by the DSS in cases in which a child died due to abuse or neglect. And - lo and behold! — that had a salutary effect as this article makes clear (Los Angeles Times, 5/20/15).
Since the state implemented the law in 2008, reporters have had access to social worker case notes and other files that 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.
In response to news stories based on those reports, state and county officials implemented a battery of child protection reforms that child welfare advocates credit with reducing the number of children who die because of abuse and neglect.
As I said, it’s a modest step, but an important one. It only allows access to records when a child has died, so the overwhelming majority of cases are closed to the public. In those 99% of cases, We the People have no right to know what the officials we pay are doing, or not doing. But still, the 2008 law was a step in the right direction. The press got access to records, the people learned what was going on and, sure enough, important changes were made that benefitted kids. Sunshine can be healthy.
So how has DSS responded?
The California Department of Social Services has quietly drafted a bill that would gut key portions of the state’s landmark law requiring child protective services agencies to release records when a youth dies of abuse or neglect...
But 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.
It would also exclude the public from reviewing case files concerning children who were killed by their parents' boyfriends or girlfriends.
Although the siblings of children who died of abuse or neglect are already able to object to having information about them released, the new bill allows for the lawyers of children indirectly involved in the case to object as well.
There’s a lot bad about the agency’s bill, but to me its worst aspect is that it would allow DSS to write its own summaries of what occurred in a case instead of giving the public access to entire files. Can you spell “cover-up?” Such a provision would be an open invitation to obscure reality and make it all but impossible for reporters to know if caseworkers had acted negligently or not.
And the same agency that wants to shield its activities from public view appears unenthusiastic about letting the same public know about the bill it’s promoting to increase the secrecy in which it acts.
Social services officials drafted the language in recent days for a “trailer bill” for the state budget, bypassing the usual committee review and fast-tracking the proposal for a vote.
The governor’s website for trailer bills features only a placeholder for the bill. Officials who wrote the bill shared a draft of it with a small group of child welfare advocates, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
A spokesman noted that the department had not yet publicly introduced the language of the bill...
So, as of now, the agency has managed to get fast-track authority for a bill whose language only agency insiders and a few hand-picked others have even read. Add to that the fact that agency spokespersons are refusing to even comment on the bill and that it’s scheduled for a vote as early as this week, a clear picture emerges.
It’s a picture of an agency that is so worried about its own bill that it wants it passed before anyone can even read or comment on it. That’s an agency that’s terrified the public will find out what it’s up to and put a stop to it. It’s an agency whose everyday behavior relies on secrecy and who wants its legislative lobbying shielded in the same way. And no wonder. There’s a definite consistency to keeping bad casework and bad lobbying secret from the public.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Times for blowing the roof off DSS’s scurrilous attempt to hide from public view.
But Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law said he was dismayed by the proposed changes overall.
“We must not accede to the protectionism of the establishment,” said Fellmeth, who was among the attorneys who worked for years to win the mandate to disclose. He said that the public disclosure of such records is perhaps the only effective measure to fix problems when agencies make mistakes
“We have just this — the little canaries in the cage who tell us something did not happen that perhaps needed to happen,” he said.
Just so. Existing law opens the window just a crack. It allows the public the rarest and most limited of glimpses at what DSS employees are doing. In the vast majority of cases, Californians still have no idea.
Across the country, what’s needed is more disclosure, more openness by child protective agencies, not less. Those agencies hide behind the supposed need of children in abusive homes to be free from public scrutiny. That argument is mostly a red herring. As I’ve said before, there are simply too many cases of child abuse and neglect for the press to publicize many of them or much about the ones it might choose. So, even if there were no restrictions on publication of children’s names, very few would be exposed in the press.
But far simpler would be to require the press to do what it does in cases in which rape is alleged. There, the complainant’s name is prohibited from publication. Why not make child protective case files public, but require the names of children and any adults whose identities would also identify the children, to be kept out of the press? That would allow us to know what our employees are doing, while keeping innocent children out of the public eye.
What we have now is almost complete public ignorance of CPS behavior. Surely we can pass sensible legislation that would let the sun shine in on agency activities and at the same time keeping abused and neglected children out of the spotlight. The latest DSS bill would do the opposite of what’s needed — greater transparency.
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