SACRAMENTO — California's child-abuse prevention programs lost almost $1 million in federal aid this year because the Deukmejian Administration failed to sponsor state legislation to add protections for severely handicapped infants.
The bill was needed to satisfy federal rules governing decisions whether to withhold medical treatment from children born with extreme handicaps, particularly in cases where denial of treatment is likely to lead to the child's death.
Administration officials contend that they delayed proposing the needed bill and accompanying rule changes because they were waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal government's role in protecting handicapped youngsters--a decision that came in June, 1986.
They also said they saw little hope in an election year of finding a state legislator to introduce the bill on a subject that has proven to be almost as explosive as the abortion issue.
Because the needed legislation was not in place by an Oct. 1 deadline this year, the state Department of Social Services did not even apply for the federal grants. Some of the money would have been used to set up a system for reporting and investigating cases in which medical treatment has been withheld from disabled infants. It also would finance other child-abuse prevention and education programs, including those that encourage teachers and physicians to report suspected cases of abuse.
Right-to-life groups and organizations representing the disabled have demanded that the government intervene to protect the interest of infants, no matter how severely impaired. On the other side have been medical associations and individual parents and physicians who argue that these often painful and sensitive decisions are best made by families and their doctors, without the heavy hand of government.
Two state health and welfare officials who asked not to be identified said the Administration feared that right-to-life extremists might try to amend any legislative proposal so that medical treatment would be required for all infants, even when survival was unlikely.
However, the state's lawmakers were never given the chance to consider introducing the needed legislation. Key legislators and their committee staffs insist that they were never told that California stood to be cut off from funds for state child-abuse prevention programs. Nor did the Administration seek an author for the needed bill.
"It's very unfortunate that the state has not complied and that the Administration did not inform legislators so we could do something about it," said Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who heads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. "It is senseless to lose that kind of money."
Loren Suter, a deputy director of the Department of Social Services, pointed out that the issue was mentioned in documents sent to the Legislature's budget committees. But he acknowledged that the Administration did not approach any legislators about introducing the legislation needed to keep the funds flowing.
"We did not try," he said.
It would have been impossible to win support for a bill on so sensitive a subject at the end of what had become "a precarious legislative session," said James W. Morgan, deputy secretary of the state Health and Welfare Agency. He said tough state laws already in place provide ample protection for disabled infants and the needed law change was "a matter of form rather than substance."
To qualify for the federal child-abuse money, the state needed a statute that requires hospitals to name a staff member to work with county welfare officials to resolve charges of medical neglect of handicapped infants. The law would also spell out the state's right to review the child's medical records and would permit the courts to order an independent medical examination of the child.
Last year, the state received $1.1 million in grants for such programs and could have expected $900,000 this year, Suter said. But without the needed law in place, the Administration had to ask the Legislature for $359,000 in state funds, which offset only part of the lost federal money.
Suter said the Administration initially decided to hold up the legislative proposal while awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that grew out of a highly publicized 1982 case involving an infant born in Bloomington, Ind., known in court records as Baby Doe. The child was born with Down's syndrome, a form of mental retardation, as well as a blocked esophagus. The parents chose to forgo surgery and allow the infant to die.
In response to the Baby Doe incident and the outcry that followed from right-to-life groups, President Reagan ordered federal health officials to develop rules for intervening in cases where treatment was withheld on the grounds that the failure to treat was a violation of the infant's civil rights.
A federal court struck down the Reagan Administration's Baby Doe rules, but the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which struck down the regulations in June.
But while the court case was still pending, six U.S. senators, including California's Alan Cranston, negotiated a delicate compromise requiring each state to put into place procedures for reviewing Baby Doe cases. Under the measure, signed into law in 1984, states needed to conform to the new legislation in order to receive federal help to combat child abuse and neglect.