OPEN GOVERNMENT -- The story
of official avarice in the city of Bell continues, astonishingly, to worsen.
But it can’t compare with what Los Angeles County officials at the highest
level are doing to avoid being brought to account for the suffering and deaths
of helpless children.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times today,

The city of Bell gave nearly $900,000 in loans to former
City Administrator Robert Rizzo, city employees and at least two council
members in the last several years, according to records reviewed by The Times.

 

The documents show that Bell's former assistant city
manager, Angela Spaccia, received two loans of at least $100,000 each and that
council members Oscar Hernandez and Luis Artiga received $20,000 loans. Rizzo,
whose huge salary sparked a scandal that forced him and other city officials to
step down, received two loans for $80,000 each, city officials said.

 

*****

Rizzo's contract for this year called for him to receive
more than $1.5 million in salary and benefits. The loans appear to have come on
top of that compensation.

There’s no
evidence that the loans were approved by the city council, and the two council
members who got them did not report them on their financial disclosure
statements as required by law.

 Sensational
and galling as these revelations are, they are almost certainly isolated, they
are readily addressed by corrective legislation ensuring better fiscal controls
and more sunshine in local agency compensation (see, for example, AB 1955 by
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate)), and what’s at stake is, after
all, only money.

In contrast,
the Times also
reported today,

In a contentious 4-1 vote, Los Angeles County supervisors
Tuesday ordered county departments to cooperate with an investigation into what
they called the "inappropriate disclosure of confidential child welfare
information" to the Los Angeles Times regarding the deaths of children who
were being monitored by county workers.

 

Tuesday's vote came after supervisors acted in closed
session in recent weeks to begin an investigation — without disclosing the
action to the public. In a letter last week to the supervisors, William T
Fujioka, the county's chief executive, raised concerns that the previous
closed-door discussions may have violated the Brown Act, a state law that
protects the public's right to participate and be informed of meetings of local
legislative bodies.

 

For more than a year, The Times has reported on the deaths of children whose
families had previously come to the attention of the county Department of
Children and Family Services because of allegations of abuse or neglect.

The investigation ordered by the supervisors came after the
department's director, Trish Ploehn, complained that information obtained by
The Times was causing a morale problem in her agency, Supervisor Zev
Yaroslavsky said at Tuesday's meeting.

Yaroslavsky, the lone no vote, rebuked Fujioka and top child
services officials for wasting time on pursuing a way to "plug the
leaks." "The obsession with leaks, seems to me, exceeds the
obsession with child deaths," Yaroslavsky said.

There
should be no political divide on this issue.  Left or right, we surely agree that there is a role for the
government to play in ensuring minimal child welfare when the family can’t or
won’t do so—when in fact there is no real “family”—just the custodial
aftereffects of procreation. And whether or not we reflexively mistrust the “nanny
state,” we surely also agree that governmental intervention
to remove children from the control of parents it deems to be unfit, in order
to be legitimate, must be competent to the task and effectively managed and equipped.
Citizens of any political persuasion should agree that good will without good skill
and proper resources can be a cure worse than the problem, especially when the
system operates in a black box.

Nevertheless,
the state’s largest county, which may be doing the state’s worst job in child
welfare, is reacting to newspaper reports on the heartbreaking results of its
failures by loosing the hounds to find who in its ranks furnished reporters
with the facts.  In blithe
dismissal of the Brown Act, the board of supervisors majority even initially
used an unlawful closed session to hear, discuss and approve top bureaucrats’
request for the witch hunt.

The pretext
for this Nixonian dragnet is that laws for the protection of minors’ privacy
have been violated. While that may or may not be the case, the question pales
beside the issue of whether those laws are anything more but a pious cover for
the most secretive and potentially destructive archipelago of government power
in today’s society—the joined-at-the-hip realm of the juvenile dependency court
and child welfare systems.

Picture
everything you know about the
cascading failures of the Los Angeles Unified School
District.  Now imagine if that
institution were entirely closed to public observation—its governing board and
school site advisory committees exempt from the Brown Act and other public
meeting laws, its documents exempt from the California Public Records Act, and
even parents subject to court punishment for publicly revealing information
from the records of discipline, achievement or other individual school
experiences of their own children. 
All this justified in the name of pupil privacy. No one would tolerate the invitation
to systemic educational malpractice posed by such wraparound secrecy, or accept
the invocation of privacy as anything but a dodge to avoid the scrutiny which
is the public’s due. 

Why should
the public reaction be any different when the stakes are not just children’s
education but care for their home nurture, health, safety, innocence and very lives? Do those
very values argue for freedom from public attention—or for the public attention and
demand for responsibility that only transparency can ensure?

With
apologies to Andrew Marvell, the grave’s a fine and private place, but children
there can’t be embraced.

Lest it be
thought a reference to the grave is melodramatic, check the Times’s 2009
report of the 14 deaths in the previous year of children in homes
under child welfare supervision. And consider the next to worthless 1999 law that for the first
time provided that while juvenile court records about living children under
court or agency supervision were presumed to be confidential, records about
children who died under that supervision were to be presumed public.  This legislation was requested by the
Los Angeles Board of Supervisors after several such deaths came to light, to
the embarrassment of the child welfare department.

But that bill
required a lawsuit to force disclosure of the records, and was otherwise
weakened by giving the juvenile court judge power to deny access to the entire
file based on a secretly supported conclusion that disclosure would be “detrimental
to the safety, protection, or physical, or emotional well-being of another
child who is directly or indirectly connected to the juvenile case.”  As the California Court of Appeal
explained in affirming one such denial after the late Jaime M.’s foster mother
had been charged with his murder, the “other child”—presumably his natural or
foster sibling—was so closely associated with him in the case files that no
editing before release could reveal what happened to Jaime without showing what
the other child suffered, albeit not fatally.  And so the presumption reverted to no disclosure at
all.  Said the court,

We . . .
recognize the frustration likely felt by (the newspaper) appellants who have
been told their presumptive right to access will not be honored in this case
but at the same time have not been told why this is so, beyond a recitation of
some statutory phrases and a few factual generalities which together probably
communicate nothing more than that appellants will not get Jaime's files
"because we said so," and without detailed explanation of the
substantial evidence which supports the juvenile court's order. We can only
respond by pointing out that "because we said so" is about all that
can be said in most cases arising under subdivision (a)(2).

A few years later Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally introduced a bill intended to raise child welfare workers' standards of care after the court of appeal found that Los Angeles County had no liability for removing a child from his home—because of his mother's prescription drug abuse—and placing him with a foster parent who sexually molested him. By the time the county and the statewide welfare directors' association had finished their lobbying onslaught, the bill was passed with little more than a statement of legislative intent preserving the status quo and a requirement that after the death of a foster child, officials must disclose  the child's name, date of birth, and date and cause of death, without having to obtain a court order—but only upon request: no initiative to announce the death was required.

More
recently the Legislature has provided a broader window on dependent child death
cases, thanks to former State Senator Carole Migden.  Welfare and Institutions Code Section 10850.4 provides that
within five business days of learning that any child fatality has occurred in the
county and that there is a reasonable suspicion that the fatality was caused by
abuse or neglect, the county child welfare agency, upon request, must release
the child’s age and sex, date of death, whether the child was in foster care or
in the home of his or her parent or guardian at the time, and whether a law
enforcement agency or the child welfare agency is investigating the death. If
such an inquiry confirms neglect or abuse, a fair number of relevant law
enforcement, child welfare and medical records concerning the child’s suffering
and death must be released, but again only on request, and with all names and
other identifying information of anyone in the files removed, and beyond that, subject to further redaction based on a formal
objection by any surviving children directly or indirectly connected. 

Besides the anonymity provision shielding all involved adults as well as children, the traditional disclosure-resistant catches are thus still present: the county need not notify anyone of such
deaths unless asked; neither the county nor any other agency need announce its
conclusion that the death resulted from abuse or neglect; and any consequently
public documents must be requested by someone aware that such conclusions have
been reached.  Like the city
officials’ self-dealing in Bell, transparency depends critically on an alert and informed
watchdog.

Ironically,
it appears that the leaks of information that Los Angeles County officials are now complaining
about may have been triggered by gaps in disclosure left in the Migden bill, filled
in by tips obtained by the Times
’s enterprising reporters for their deeply troubling series.

To sum up:
When we see what rot can set in anywhere public responsibilities are performed
entirely out of sight; when we consider the frailty of poor and exposed children for which
public responsibility has been assumed; when we closely consider the peculiar
kind of “privacy” that puts young lives at risk under adult supervision which
is itself ultimately unsupervised; and when we read the Times
accounts of what barbarous
treatment can be meted out to children by adults inadequately checked by those
who know they will never have to answer to the public . . . we begin to understand
whose privacy is really being protected—thanks to a secret system built and
maintained by those we have elected but never questioned on this matter of life and death.