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While children die

Kids the Department of Children and Family Services should be protecting are dying. Instead of focusing on that problem, administrators are trying to stop the flow of information to the public.

August 18, 2010|Tim Rutten

In "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge," the 18th century philosopher George Berkeley posed the first version of a question people have pondered ever since: If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it, has it really fallen?

A pair of Los Angeles County bureaucrats and their allies on the Board of Supervisors apparently have decided no, which is why they're working overtime to deny the public access to information concerning the mounting body count among children consigned to the care of the Department of Children and Family Services. County Chief Executive William Fujioka and Trish Ploehn, the department's director, apparently are convinced that the real problem at the DCFS is not the repeated mistakes and malfeasance that kill some of the most tragically vulnerable children in our community, but the public anger that results when people find out just how those deaths occurred.

Thus, Fujioka and Ploehn, disturbed by a series of Times articles on the dead children, have induced the supervisors to direct all county departments to join a witch hunt, or, as they call it, "an inquiry related to the inappropriate disclosure of confidential child welfare information and, in consultation with the county counsel, report back on the findings." The theory here is that if you cut off reporters' information, so that nobody knows exactly how the children died, it's as if they're not dead. No matter how agonizing a child's end, a vast bureaucratic silence will absorb his or her cries, and it will be as if they never lived — or died — at all. If any sound escapes, it will be that faint official splash that first echoed when Pilate washed his hands.

Fujioka is canny enough to know that the shameful is best accomplished in secret, so he initially proposed this inquisition to a closed session of the board last week. County Counsel Andrea Ordin was present but sat silently through what was an obvious violation of the Brown Act, which dictates that all but carefully delineated aspects of the public's business must be done in public. Still, Fujioka and Ploehn refuse to be deterred: They came back for an open approval of their witch hunt Tuesday. Only Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky opposed the inquiry, arguing that the board ought to focus on DCFS' problems.

Their dogged pursuit of alleged leakers stands in contrast to their lethargy when it comes to the latest series of Times' reports, which concern the tragedy of 11-year-old Jorge Tarin. As Garrett Therolf recently reported, the boy went to his school counselor one morning and said his life was "unbearable." According to school records, Jorge said that classmates bullied him and that his mother repeatedly struck him with a hanger and a shoe while his stepfather held him down. He said he wanted to kill himself "because I'm tired of people hitting me all the time."

A team from the county Mental Health Department was summoned, but the boy, who previously had spent 15 months in foster care because his mother and stepfather beat him, was ultimately sent home.

A social worker and police arrived at the family apartment shortly afterward. As The Times reported, the social worker did not have one of the new notebook computers that might have allowed access to a database showing that the stepfather, who answered the door, was under a court order forbidding his residence in the apartment. However, the social worker did know that Jorge previously had suffered abuse; that he had been removed from his family for more than a year; that he had alleged the abuse had resumed; and that he had threatened suicide.

Still, after a brief interview, the social worker left, leaving Jorge in the apartment. A short time later, while the rest of the household watched a Lakers game, the boy went into the closet of his mother's bedroom, took a jump rope and hanged himself.

Ploehn has insisted that no mistake was made in the case, and no action has been taken. Somehow, though, decent minds may wonder exactly what it would have taken to remove that poor, tormented little boy to safety? Did the social worker have to come in and find him with the noose around his neck?

If you were running a department that operated like that, neither you nor your boss would want anybody to know either, which is exactly why Fujioka and Ploehn are trying to turn the DCFS into a forest where nobody hears.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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