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Leaks don't kill kids

Editorial

It is depressingly unsurprising that the Board of Supervisors would see the deaths of children in the care of Los Angeles County as a publicity problem, not a failure of the county's most basic obligation.

August 21, 2010

Faced with a series of administrative lapses that have contributed to the deaths of children in the care of Los Angeles County, the county Board of Supervisors has responded with stern and authoritative action — against the worker or workers who may have brought the tragedies to light.

It is depressingly unsurprising that the board would see these deaths as a publicity problem, not a failure of the county's most basic obligation. As Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn described it to the supervisors, the leaks of information regarding child deaths have created a morale issue for her colleagues. Boohoo.

The response to a crisis in child protection might involve overhauling the county's systems for safeguarding children's welfare; it might require firing some inattentive social workers; it might suggest upgrading technology to allow records from the field to be more readily available. But the response to a PR problem suggests a different course: This week, the board authorized a leak investigation.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the lone dissenter, aptly noted that "the obsession with leaks … exceeds the obsession with child deaths." He's right, and his colleagues are wrong as they continue to frame the problems of their troubled department as bad press rather than bad management. Moreover, the county's insistence on hushing up these matters has led it to break the law: In contravention of the state law that requires board members to hold their meetings in public, the supervisors initially discussed the leak investigation in closed session. They tried to remedy that this week by at least debating in public, but secrecy is corroding this issue at every step.

On June 8, 11-year-old Jorge Tarin hung himself with a jump-rope hours after a county social worker interviewed him at home and then left him there; this, even though Jorge that same day had told a school counselor and a county worker that he was considering suicide. As the county board considers that tragedy, it should ask itself this question: Who did Jorge more harm? The worker who left him in a home where he complained of being beaten and where his stepfather was residing in defiance of a court order, or the county worker who may have brought details of Jorge's death to light?

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