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Child welfare official alleges warrantless search

A Department of Children and Family Services staffer says her personal belongings were examined in a bid to find people the agency thinks leaked information. The department chief denies the allegations.

September 29, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services officials have continued to search for individuals they believe shared confidential information about child deaths with The Times, according to a senior official who alleged that her personal belongings underwent a warrantless search.

Director Trish Ploehn said that "because this incident is being investigated, we are limited in terms of specifics we can provide. However, we strongly deny the allegations being made and believe that the investigation will show that no actions by DCFS staff were in violation of any individual's rights."

Darlene McDade-White, the department's lead internal affairs investigator, said she drew suspicion when she filed a whistle-blower claim along with another DCFS official. Her complaint alleged that the department falsified child death reports to eliminate mention of case management errors that contributed to the fatalities.

"The whistle-blowing was met not with corrective action, but with severe retaliation directed at me by members of the department," McDade-White said in a subsequent claim.

According to McDade-White, earlier this month Jackie Contreras, the department's second-highest-ranking official, and Jennifer Lopez, McDade-White's supervisor, confronted her and searched the bag she was carrying home. They found no confidential documents, she said.

"I was never told I could refuse their search, and the tone and level of authority of my attackers made me feel that it would be dangerous to even try," McDade-White said.

Additionally, she said, another colleague "berated" and "intimidated" her in an effort to persuade her to drop the falsification claim.

Paula Gamboa, a former president of the social workers union who said she was speaking as union member, disputed McDade-White's account in a statement to The Times and said the conversation contained "no friction."

Gamboa, who was recently promoted by Ploehn to join the team handling child fatality reviews, said she told McDade-White, "I am not comfortable working in an environment in which my integrity is being questioned and there are articles in the L.A. Times as to the quality of work being performed."

Meanwhile, Ploehn has yet to comply with recommendations by an independent evaluator who told the county Board of Supervisors last month that the department failed to follow a state disclosure law mandating the release of records when a child dies of maltreatment under its watch.

Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the county Office of Independent Review, found dozens of deaths in which the department declared the cause to be abuse or neglect in confidential court filings but did not follow with a public acknowledgement, as the law requires.

Gennaco also told Ploehn that her department should present law enforcement authorities with documents before asking them if they objected to their release.

Ploehn said she was in full agreement with his findings and pledged to follow his recommendations.

The implementation has been slow, however. Late Tuesday, the Department of Children and Family Services made its initial release of information in response to Gennaco's report, but the bulk of his recommendations have yet to be implemented.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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