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L.A.'S PARENT OF LAST RESORT

The Shadows of Foster Care

May 03, 2003

Why don't authorities want Desiree Collins' story told? No one has found the 14-year-old's body, but Los Angeles County prosecutors are trying a reputed gang member who they believe shot the foster child in February 2002.

Desiree's case file no doubt offers clues as to what went so terribly wrong. The thick stack of notes and court reports probably hints at why the teenager ran away from her foster home and what social workers did -- or didn't do -- to keep her safe and in school. But the Department of Children and Family Services has steadfastly refused to open her file to reporters, insisting that Desiree's right to privacy, even in death, trumps the public's right to know whether the officials responsible for protecting the county's most vulnerable children properly supervised this girl.

Last month, a Superior Court judge ordered the foster-care agency to turn over Desiree's file to reporters -- a searingly sensible move. But it shouldn't take a murder and a court order to persuade child welfare officials to let the public shine light into the shadows where too many of the county's 30,000 foster children live.

Judges and lawmakers historically have closed court proceedings and records involving minors in a laudable effort to shield already traumatized children from further humiliation and stigma. But child welfare agencies also use those laws to keep the public from scrutinizing what they do.

State confidentiality protections are supposed to evaporate when a child dies in foster care, unless releasing files will endanger or embarrass surviving siblings. In recent years, however, child welfare officials have battled to keep the files on nearly every dead child locked away.

Most social workers do praiseworthy -- not to mention herculean -- work to help children overcome their parents' mistreatment or neglect and find them stable, loving parents. Others are overwhelmed or incompetent. And Desiree Collins is far from the only child who died in county care.

A few years ago, local child welfare advocates tried but failed to get state law amended to open most court proceedings involving juveniles. They should try again.

The county's new foster-care director, David Sanders, helped bring about similar changes when he ran a Minnesota child welfare agency. Now courtrooms there are generally open during dependency hearings and state law presumes that any document introduced in court is public unless a judge determines that releasing it could hurt the child.

Such rules make sense for California as well.

For children whose own mothers and fathers can't or won't care for them, Los Angeles County taxpayers are the parents of last resort. But it is impossible for these de facto caretakers to monitor their thousands of charges when the agency they're supposed to oversee keeps slamming the door in their face.

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