SANTA ANA — The Orange County Grand Jury is investigating the practice of social workers helping some pregnant teenage girls under the county's protection marry the adult men who impregnated them, county officials and sources close to the panel confirmed Thursday.
The panel's secret inquiry centers on whether the underage girls' interests are being protected and whether law enforcement officials are appropriately dealing with the adult men, who might otherwise be prosecuted on statutory rape or child abuse charges.
"This is a situation that definitely warrants the grand jury's review," said one county official who is aware of the investigation. "Is the [child protection] system working properly?"
Larry M. Leaman, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, was in Sacramento on Thursday and could not be reached for comment. He has confirmed that about 15 adolescent girls taken into protective custody have been helped to marry or resume living with adult men who made them pregnant. In one case in July, a pregnant 13-year-old girl was given court approval to marry her 20-year boyfriend.
Judy Tanasse, an assistant director handling the agency's review, acknowledged that the agency has been contacted by the grand jury and said it will cooperate fully with the 19-member body.
"Our agency is very accustomed to working with the grand jury," said Tanasse, who declined further comment on the issue.
Several social workers have acknowledged supplying the grand jury with information regarding the agency's controversial practice.
In addition to the grand jury's investigation, the agency's practice has caught the attention of the governor's office, the state Department on Social Services, the Orange County Juvenile Justice Commission and the Board of Supervisors--all of whom said they are closely monitoring the situation.
"I think it's totally unacceptable to allow men to have sex with children," board Chairman Roger R. Stanton said. "It's morally and ethically reprehensible, and I do not think we should condone it in any way."
Stanton said the board is expecting a report from social services officials explaining the "reason and rationale" behind the practice. He said that if supervisors are not satisfied with the response, "the board will get involved."
"The last time I looked, something like this was clearly illegal," he added.
Leaman has said that marriage was a recommendation of social workers in relatively few cases, and only when the social workers concluded it was a better solution than placing the girls in foster homes. Furthermore, he said marriages generally occur only if the minor, one or both parents, an attorney appointed by the court to represent her interests, and her adult boyfriend consent to the union.
The agency is nonetheless conducting an intensive review of the practice and the cases that have come to light to determine if new policies and procedures should be adopted.
An agency task force studying the problem recently issued a draft report on the issue saying that social workers should stop recommending marriages in all cases. That decision should be left entirely up to the juvenile courts, the task force members said.
Grand jury foreman Donald Wecker would neither confirm nor deny that the panel was investigating the matter. The situation, however, certainly falls under the grand jury's purview and its role as a government watchdog.
The grand jury has both civil and criminal functions. In its civil role, the panel investigates governmental operations, issuing reports and recommendations that are presented to the Board of Supervisors. In its criminal function, the panel reviews matters brought before it by the district attorney's office to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to issue a criminal indictment.