The sins of child protective agencies are many, and many have detailed them at length. I’ve tossed my hat in that ring on occasion. Mostly, CPS agencies tend to over-interfere in families. I recently ran a piece based on a blog in the New York Times written by attorney Chris Gottlieb. She’s an attorney whose largely thankless job it is to try to defend parents targeted by CPS. Most of her clients are poor, and they find themselves criticized for infractions as bizarre as feeding the child Chinese take-out and allowing it to play in a sprinkler.

What Gottlieb didn’t mention was the fact that CPS agencies across the country have the habit of pretending that fathers don’t exist. When they take a child from maternal care, it often goes straight into foster care, Do Not Pass GO, Do Not Contact the Dad. The Urban Institute did a study in 2006 and learned that, in some 80% of cases in which a child was taken from a mother, CPS knew the identity of the father, but failed to make any effort to ascertain his fitness as a placement for the child in over half of those cases.

Both of those examples – the intrusiveness into legitimate parental decision-making and the preference for foster care over father care – are indemic in CPS agencies nationwide. Indeed, in Texas at least, it’s gotten so bad that a judge recently issued a restraining order against the agency in one particularly egregious case.

But this article is a new one to me (Los Angeles Times, 8/31/10). It seems that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has been covering up child deaths that are known or suspected to have resulted from abuse or neglect. That’s the conclusion of a recent audit of the agency completed by the county’s Office of Independent Review on August 30th.

Beginning on January 1, 2008, the State of California required child protective agencies to make public the circumstances of children’s deaths from abuse or neglect, the better to understand and, if necessary, alter the behavior of CPS agencies and caseworkers. Of course the new law only requires publishing information about deaths from abuse or neglect, not about other fatalities to children. That distinction opened the door to the DCFS to “interpret” certain fatalities as not resulting from abuse or neglect in one context and as resulting from abuse or neglect in another.

The audit is clear that the statute seeks to “promote public scrutiny” of abuse or neglect resulting in death, and therefore of the actions of the DCFS. That in turn “might cause criticism of the child protective agency to occur. Accordingly, there may be… incentives for child protective service officials to adopt a narrow… view” of whether a fatality resulted from abuse or neglect.

That’s bureaucratese for “if the public finds out how DCFS screwed up, it’ll be critical, so DCFS hides the information.” As County Superviser Zev Yaroslavsky put it,

“The board has been misled, but more importantly the public has been misled and that is really inexcusable,” Yaroslavsky said. “There is only one possible motivation here, other than the right hand not doing what the left hand is doing, and that is an intent to withhold information from the public.”

Meanwhile, the police seem to like public scrutiny even less than does the DCFS. In the first year in which the new law was in effect, law enforcement agencies provided full information in almost every one of the cases, but since then, “the stream of information about SB 39 child deaths… has been largely shut down.”

CPS agencies are given a difficult job to perform. Caseworkers are often overworked and underpaid, but are tasked with deciding which children are at risk of injury or neglect and which are not. They invariably tread a fine line between over-intrusion into private family lives and too little intrusion that can result in child abuse or neglect. Into the bargain, many of the families they deal with are poor and so caseworkers are required to figure out if particular parenting behavior stems from neglect or simply a lack of resources. The correct call in those cases is not always clear, I’m sure. Finally, the CPS system has a built-in bias that encourages caseworkers to over-interfere. Taking a child from a parent generates few headlines; a child injured or killed generates many.

Mindful of that, SB 39 seeks to shine a light on the doings of LA County’s DCFS. As in most bureaucracies, that’s ruffled some feathers, but that’s a good thing. The people of Los Angeles have a right to know what their employees are up to, especially when mistakes are made. And that’s never more true than when children are the victims of those mistakes.

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