May 23, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
For the second time in as many years, California’s Legislature has rejected efforts by Governor Jerry Brown and the Department of Social Services to hide actions of child welfare workers from public view. The Senate Budget Committee unanimously rejected the attempt to drastically overhaul a 2008 law that gives the public greater – but still limited – access to DSS documents in child welfare cases.
Read about it here (Los Angeles Times, 5/20/16).
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…
Following criticism by child welfare advocates, committee staff issued a negative recommendation and members unanimously blocked the bill from moving forward.
The 2008 law, while salutary, is the very picture of moderation. It allows the press and the public access to DSS files in the event a child dies from abuse or neglect. That’s a tiny fraction of one percent of all cases dealt with by the state’s child welfare authorities. So it’s not as if DSS employees were spending all their time satisfying onerous demands from the news media.
On the contrary, the law seems to have had a beneficial effect.
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.
It’s those “glaring inadequacies” and “social workers disregarding policies” that the agency would prefer the public not know about. We see this time and again. In New York, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California and elsewhere, child welfare agencies invariably attempt to block public access to information about what they’re doing. They’ve always worked out of the public’s view and that’s how they like it. Doing so gives them the freedom to do what they want, how they want to do it and only answer to their superiors within the agency.
And of course those same agencies invariably claim that secrecy benefits the children, although their explanations why never hold water.
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.
That’s because the press and the public are fully capable of understanding who erred and who didn’t. What we aren’t capable of is knowing whether caseworkers are doing their jobs if we have only them to tell us, but that’s exactly what DSS wants.
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.
Surely no one would seek to cover up wrongdoing or put a gloss on agency malfeasance, right?
But agency resistance to legally-mandate disclosure doesn’t stop at trying to alter the existing law.
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.
So, faced with the requirement of disclosure, DSS simply issued regulations to its staff that contradicted the terms of the law. And this is the agency that now wants us to accept its own “abbreviated summaries” of its actions in lieu of contemporaneous case notes.
But the DSS isn’t the only two-faced player in this farce.
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.
So Brown and DSS are working hand-in-glove to derail the public’s right to know what its employees are up to.
Good for the Budget Committee for rejecting this nonsense out of hand. DSS is singing the same song we invariably hear from child welfare authorities – the press and the public have no right to know what we’re doing while supposedly protecting children.
There’s a lot wrong with that point of view. For one thing, except in the rarest of circumstances, the public should be able to know what any public official or agency is doing any time anywhere, for any reason or no reason. If we’re to be a government of, by and for the people, then the people have a right to know. Period.
But more specifically, every time we do get a glimpse of what some state child welfare agency is doing, we come away appalled. The secrecy in which those organizations are cloaked hides the most astounding failures and incompetence. Horrifying instances of child abuse come to light along with the knowledge that these agencies are so badly run that child abuse, neglect and death are virtually certain to go on unchecked and in many cases, unknown.
If child welfare agencies are run well, don’t you think they’d want us to know about it? But they’re not and the only recourse they can imagine is to hide from public view. That’s the opposite of what should happen. Increased scrutiny will be uncomfortable for many inside those agencies, but without it, reform cannot take place. And without reform, we’ll only get more of the same – more injured children, more public outrage, more turnover of agency personnel and the rest of the sorry story that day after day assaults our ears and consciences.
Secrecy isn’t to protect children, it’s to protect social workers and their superiors. And that’s not a good enough reason for it, particularly when the very lives and well-being of children are at stake.
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