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Judge rebukes child welfare agency for withholding data on deaths

The Department of Social Services subverted a law giving access to information on youngsters who died while under its supervision, court says.

January 03, 2013|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

A San Diego judge has struck down state child welfare regulations that significantly limited public access to information about minors who die from abuse and neglect.

In a stern rebuke, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Judith F. Hayes said the restrictions were "inconsistent and in conflict" with a law meant to greatly expand disclosures.

The Dec. 28 decision came in a lawsuit against the California Department of Social Services and its director, Will Lightbourne. An agency spokesman said Thursday that Lightbourne has not decided if he will appeal the ruling.

When the Legislature passed that law in 2008, members said they hoped policymakers and the public would use the resulting information to better identify flaws in the states' child welfare system that contribute to fatalities. Indeed, the limited information that has since emerged led to improvements in social worker training and information systems.

But Hayes said the regulations subverted the law's intent by limiting disclosure to cases in which officials determined that children died directly at the hands of their natural parents, guardians or foster parents.

The regulations, introduced by former social services Director John Wagner and firmly upheld by Lightbourne despite objections from child advocates, had the effect of excluding deaths at the hands of other people, including extended relatives and parents' boyfriends or girlfriends.

The regulations also caused the exclusion of cases in which abuse was not the sole factor directly causing the death, including suicides involving children who said they were taking the action to end the abuse of their parents.

Furthermore, the regulations prevented child welfare agencies from releasing case files if there was an objection from the district attorney, but the judge noted that this restriction was also not specified in the law.

Hayes' Dec. 28 ruling called the regulation arbitrary and capricious, and said "the restrictions lead to underreporting or inconsistencies in the reporting of child abuse cases involving fatalities."

Los Angeles County and other jurisdictions have struggled to interpret the regulations. As a result, local officials have implemented the law inconsistently, making comparisons of fatality numbers from one year to the next less meaningful.

Steve Keane, an attorney who joined with the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School to argue the case, said the judge's ruling should clear up disclosure standards.

If authorities determine abuse or neglect at the time of a child's death, the details will be made public, he said. Los Angeles County's child welfare chief, Philip Browning, said he welcomed such a standard even though it would mean social workers will be required to acknowledge more deaths of children who had been under the department's watch.

"I'm a firm believer in having the regulations be very clear," Browning said Thursday. Browning said he hoped to spend less time in high-level deliberations discussing whether a case should be disclosed publicly and more time improving systems to prevent future deaths.

"We're going to make mistakes and we are going to just have to own up to them," Browning said. "I know there are going to be situations where we have not done as good a job as we should have...and hopefully we'll use this information to change that."

Lightbourne's nearly two-year tenure in the state post has previously attracted controversy.

After he was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, reporters learned that Lightbourne had been hired under an unusual arrangement designed to skirt a state law that established a lower wage for his job. Lightbourne continued to be paid by Santa Clara County, where he previously served as child welfare chief, and the state reimbursed the county for the full amount. Months later, however, the contract was canceled and he became a state employee subject to the salary cap.

Before taking the state post, Lightbourne had applied to lead Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services. But some officials cooled on his candidacy when he disclosed prior marijuana use, according to two sources involved in the selection process.

Although the officials noted that attitudes on marijuana use have relaxed significantly in California, drug use is often a factor in decisions to remove children from their families.

"Director Lightbourne truthfully and directly answered questions regarding his personal background, including the disclosure of marijuana use as a young man," his spokesman said Thursday.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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