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L.A. County child welfare official falsified death reports, two staffers claim

The senior managers say they faced a hostile work environment after reporting the alleged wrongdoing to the department's director. County supervisors act to remove child-death investigator.

September 09, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County's child welfare system, already under fire for failing to report dozens of child deaths tied to abuse or neglect, is facing allegations that an official intentionally falsified fatality reports.

The existence of the civil allegations, filed in June by two senior managers and revealed this week after a public records request by The Times, comes to light as the Board of Supervisors acted to remove the county's independent child-death investigator, according to three sources familiar with the decision.


FOR THE RECORD:
Child services: An article in the Sept. 9 LATExtra section on troubles in Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services said that all five members of the Board of Supervisors —Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky -- refused to comment on the board's closed-door decision to remove Rosemarie Belda as the county's child death investigator or the future of the position. A final sentence was omitted. That sentence said: "A source familiar with the discussion said Yaroslavsky was the only person to speak in defense of Belda."

It was unclear who would replace Rosemarie Belda, who was appointed last year to the position after it had been vacant since 2006. The job, which reports directly to the supervisors, involves the politically sensitive task of reviewing child fatality cases in search of ways the county's case management errors might have contributed to the deaths.

The claim that some child fatality reports had been intentionally misleading was made by Cassandra Turner, a Department of Children and Family Services senior manager who said her superior "purposefully falsified at least three child fatality reports."

"These falsifications, which occurred in spite of my fervent protest, are clearly contrary to department policy," Turner wrote in a civil claim that seeks unspecified damages.

Turner served as an administrator in the department's child fatality section at the time of the alleged falsifications. Her claim does not contain specifics about those cases. She also says in the claim that she reported the wrongdoing directly to department Director Trish Ploehn in April 2008.

After her meeting with Ploehn, Turner said, the department failed to properly investigate the allegations and retaliated by assigning her to less-desirable duties.

She listed Darlene McDade-White, the department's chief internal affairs investigator, as a witness to the alleged wrongdoing. McDade filed a claim jointly with Turner saying she too faced a hostile work environment and, like Turner, was subject to racial discrimination because the two women are African American.

Melvin Neal, Turner's and McDade-White's attorney, declined to offer further detail. If the county denies their claim, the two women will be free to pursue a lawsuit in court.

Asked about the allegations Wednesday, Ploehn issued a written statement: "These are serious claims and they are being taken seriously.  These claims are under investigation by the department, and our policy is not to comment on ongoing investigations."

The allegations about falsifications were made more than two months before last week's revelations that the department had failed to comply with state disclosure laws. Those findings were contained in a report by Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the county's Office of Independent Review, who found that in many cases department officials referenced deaths from abuse or neglect in confidential court filings but then left those cases off the child-death lists for public release.

The lack of disclosure hid dozens of cases from public view, giving the false impression that far fewer children were dying of maltreatment under the department's watch. County officials have yet to establish a complete tally of improperly undisclosed records.

The move to end the tenure of Belda, who had recommended at least 25 reform measures for Children and Family Services and the Department of Mental Health in her role as child-death investigator, was made behind closed doors at Tuesday's board meeting, according to the sources familiar with the situation.

The previous child-death investigator was quietly dismissed in 2006 after investigating just two cases.

On Wednesday, all five supervisors — Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky — refused to comment on Belda or the future of the position. A source familiar with the discussion said Yaroslavsky was the only person to speak in defense of Belda.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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