L.A. County Thumbs Nose at State Audit of Child Welfare Agency

Los Angeles County is committing a crime by its refusal to turn over records of its child welfare agency.  That’s the opinion of the state auditor and the Los Angeles TimesHere’s one article on the subject (Los Angeles Times, 8/1/11).

The Times has reported that, since 2008, some 70 children have died of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.  That, plus many other complaints about child welfare agencies in Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento and Alameda counties prompted the state legislature to order that each agency be audited.

The audit is intended to be the most comprehensive probe in years seeking to identify whether systemic flaws contributed to fatalities in Los Angeles and other counties across the state. Lawmakers said it probably would result in legal reforms.

Fresno, Sacramento and Alameda counties have all complied with requests for records by the auditor, Elaine Howle.  Only Los Angeles County remains recalcitrant, refusing to allow a single record to be reviewed.

That refusal is criminal according to the auditor’s general counsel, Sharon Reilly.  It’s also quixotic in the extreme.  The excuse offered by Los Angeles County is that the records are all protected by attorney-client privilege and therefore cannot be turned over to the auditor.

Put simply, that’s pure bunk.  It seems that the DCFS sent the files to outside counsel for review and according to them, that somehow cloaks them with the privilege.  But the privilege is meant to allow attorneys and their clients to speak candidly without their discussions being subpoenaed by hostile parties.  That’s reasonable, but the privilege doesn’t come into being after the fact.

Simply put, all those DCFS records were created long before any attorney knew about them.  To allow attorney-client privilege to prevent disclosure to the auditor would blind every investigative agency from ever discovering documents relating to wrongdoing. 

Think of Bernie Madoff.  What if he, when the feds were closing in, simply gathered up all the records of his Ponzi scheme and passed them to his attorney?  Presto!  He’s cloaked with the privilege, the FBI and the SEC are in the dark and Bernie goes free.

It doesn’t work that way, and L.A. County knows it.  Officials there are stonewalling which strongly suggests they’ve got something to hide.  As with virtually every child welfare agency nationwide, I’ll be surprised if they don’t.  We’ll know soon enough.

“But make no mistake, we will not relent in accomplishing our mission of performing the audit that we were directed to perform by the Legislature,” wrote Sharon Reilly, chief legal counsel for state auditor Elaine Howle, noting that her office now intends to investigate Los Angeles even more deeply and broadly.

That’s a certainty.  After all, the L.A. County DCFS receives 70% of its funding from the state and federal governments.  Its legal contention that the public entities that fund it aren’t entitled to know what goes on behind its doors is too silly not to fail.

Indeed, apparently the county’s lawyers don’t even believe it themselves.

County attorneys have privately told supervisors that a judge is not likely to agree that the documents can be withheld, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations. A majority of the board nevertheless urged lawyers to fight the disclosure because of fears that the material could be used in lawsuits accusing the county of failing to provide proper child welfare services.

That – the fear of civil suits – likely is the bottom line.  Like the Woody Iocavetta case in Arizona, when negligence by child welfare agencies results in the injury or death of a child, lawsuits get filed as they should.  Otherwise, the agencies would have free rein to act as they wish. 

But headlines every day tell us that child welfare agencies throughout the country repeatedly fail the children they exist to protect.  Some of that can’t be avoided; no one expects perfection from CPS.  But we’re a long way from perfection.  Caseworkers are overworked, underpaid and undertrained for the important job they’re tasked with doing.  That’s a recipe for the disasters which all too often occur.  Laying bare those shortcomings and their sometimes gruesome consequences for all to see is the first step toward improvement.  Hiding the truth accomplishes the opposite.

It’s worth mentioning that governmental agencies have a way of preferring darkness to light.  They, like most people and organizations, like to operate in private.  But when you receive your operating budget from We the People, we’re entitled to know what you’re up to.  We’re also entitled to make changes when necessary.  You can bet that both will be occurring in the Los Angeles County DCFS in the near future.  But not before a string of horror stories from the audit hits the press.

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