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County workers rebuked for misusing power in child welfare case

An L.A. County Superior Court judge says the social workers acted out of 'bad blood' to unravel a family's progress and put 8 children at risk of being retaken by the county.

July 02, 2012|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

The mother acknowledged she unleashed a bitter torrent of accusations against the social workers who took her children last year, calling incessantly to claim they were being abused in foster care.

But what the workers did in return has drawn a stern rebuke from a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. Amy Pellman, a jurist with deep experience in the county's child welfare system, said they misused their power by retaliating and harassing the family.

After she affirmed a referee's decision to return the children to their mother, Pellman declared that the workers acted out of "bad blood" to unravel the family's progress and place the children at risk of being retaken by the county. "They told me they hate me just as much as I hate them," the mother said in an interview.

The mother, who spoke on the condition that her family not be identified in The Times out of fear that such a disclosure might prompt increased scrutiny, said she never felt more broken. "Every time there's a knock on the door, my heart skips a beat," she said. "It can go wrong so easily. I still carry the scars."

Social workers for the county Department of Children and Family Services often say they feel nearly helpless, managing high caseloads, struggling to meet minimum requirements for paperwork and visits, and too infrequently fulfilling the field's higher aspiration to perform a complex balance of dogged investigator and patient cheerleader so troubled families can eventually succeed.

Nevertheless, they wield enormous power over people at perhaps the most vulnerable point in their lives. They are able to impose intrusive restrictions and requirements on parents, and judges rely overwhelmingly on their reports to make decisions. When that power is abused, a family's already daunting recovery is made more difficult.

The family in this case had struggled with chronic homelessness for years, leaving the parents sometimes unable to meet their eight children's basic needs, and the father's alcoholism sometimes erupted in domestic violence.

But the family also had strengths. By the time the mother was reunited with her children in November, they had an apartment. The father complied with a stay-away order while receiving counseling and was willing to live in his car to save his construction earnings so the family could pay the rent. The children all earned straight-A's and excelled in sports and dance with their parents' support.

However, Pellman concluded that two social workers central to the case — neither of whom would comment for this report — maliciously contacted their landlord to say the mother and eight children were violating lease restrictions against so many living in the single-bedroom apartment. They were soon evicted.

The workers also contacted the school of one girl to say she no longer lived within its boundaries. The school initiated expulsion proceedings.

The family eventually won a special waiver to allow the girl to remain in the school. They also narrowly avoided sinking back into homelessness by using a savings account for one child's braces to pay a deposit for a new apartment set at the high cost of $4,000 because of the mother's poor credit.

"I don't know how we did it. I don't know how we survived," said the father.

Because of the father's order to remain outside the home during therapy, social workers subpoenaed apartment building security videos and made almost daily visits to ensure he was not living there. During one such visit, the children alleged that the workers improperly ordered them to disrobe in a common area to check for bruising.

Pellman's rebuke of the county's actions in the case was delivered in a hearing attended by The Times. Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County's juvenile courts, issued a blanket order allowing news coverage of previously confidential dependency courts this year.

The hearing was scheduled to consider financial sanctions against the department, and she noted that the social workers' actions occurred when the mother appeared to be finally succeeding against the odds.

"You are there to support this family, not harass them," Pellman told case supervisor Juliet Macias and social worker Eleanor Clements at the hearing. "If a parent is being nasty or obnoxious or disrespectful then you are the professionals, right? You are not to respond in kind, OK?"

Pellman's use of the sanctions process is a judicial power that judges have increasingly exercised in recent years against the department. From 2010 to 2011, sanctions nearly doubled from $25,000 to $48,000, most often because of late or missing court-ordered reports on some of the 35,000 children under the department's oversight.

Pellman has two decades of experience in child welfare and once led the highly regarded Alliance for Children's Rights, using her position as legal director to press the county to conduct more frequent visits to children removed from their families and placed in foster care.

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