Friday, February 3, 2012

$23 million bond set for teacher accused of 'bondage' photos of kids

L.A. judge plans to open child dependency courts to press, public

The presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s juvenile court said Monday he would issue an order in the coming days that would increase access for the press and public in a branch of the legal system that handles child abuse and foster care cases.

Judge Michael Nash’s annoucement capped a hearing on his proposed order that drew an overflow crowd to hear a debate that had sharply divided many involved in the child welfare system.

Much of the debate since his proposal was floated in November centered on the perceived benefits or weaknesses of more openness, but Nash opened his hearing by saying he wanted to focus solely on existing law and stay clear of broader policy discussions.

“My purpose is to implement the statute that applies and the case law that applies,” Nash said.

Under his proposed order, the news media would be presumed to have a legitimate interest that would allow them to attend hearings. Other members of the public would have to demonstrate a legitimate interest or be present with the consent of the child or the child's attorney.

The news media and other members of the public could be barred from the courtroom but only after an objection is raised by one of the parties to the case. The objection would have to demonstrate that “there is a reasonable likelihood that access will be harmful to the child’s or children’s best interest.”

Kelli Sager, an attorney for the Los Angeles Times, said Nash’s proposed order finally provides a road map for judges who are attempting to implement a law that allows them to “admit such persons as he deems to have a direct and legitimate interest.”

“For 20 years,” she said, “there has been no process set up … and the process has been inconsistent or ad hoc at best.”

Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents the vast majority of children in the dependency system, said her firm continues to consider an appeal if the order is implemented. However, she said recent revisions “largely cured” her objections by raising the bar for non-news-media members of the public to remain in the courtroom.

Heimov said in an interview that her biggest remaining concern involves the hearings that would take place if an objection to public or news media attendance is raised. Such hearings should be closed to the public, she said, while lawyers argue about the potential harm to the child’s interests.

“Otherwise, we’re exposing the child to harm before the finding of the harm,” she said.

If that issue is resolved, she said her office may not appeal the order.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Policy violations in Colorado social-services system found amid deaths of 43 children

By Jordan Steffen

In the past five years, 43 Colorado children died from abuse or neglect after entering the child welfare program. Every one of those deaths was marked by a policy violation or sparked concern in the way the case was handled by county social workers.

Investigations completed by the Colorado Department of Human Services since 2007 indicate that social workers in 18 counties repeatedly failed to complete basic functions — such as interviews or follow-ups on assessments — in 43 cases where a child later died from abuse or neglect.

In 40 percent of those deaths — 17 children — county social workers failed to start or did not accept an assessment after a referral warranted an investigation for abuse or neglect.

The state department opens an investigation whenever a child's death is a result of abuse or neglect and there was contact with the county child welfare system during the two years before the child's death, said spokeswoman Liz McDonough.

Before 2011, an investigation was opened if a child entered the system five years before the death.

Human Services' latest investigation will be into the death of 3-year-old Caleb Pacheco, whose body was found tucked underneath a Sterling mobile home last week. His mother, Juanita Kinzie, 24, is in custody and faces one count of first-degree murder in her son's death.

In 2011, 21 child-fatality reports were launched in Colorado. Two have been completed. Reports become public after they are finished and if they show policy violations or concerns. The Denver Post obtained all 43 public reports completed in the past five years.

Most of the reports included multiple referrals and assessments.

According to The Post's findings:

There were 27 instances in which county social workers failed to contact, interview or follow up with victims, caregivers, reporting parties or other adults involved in an referral.

There were 32 instances in which social workers did not document unsafe conditions, prior incidents or other concerns in their assessments.

There were 33 occasions during which assessments were not started in a timely manner, were completed incorrectly or left open beyond the allotted time frame.

In five cases, social workers failed to account for other children or caregivers living in the home, and communication difficulties across county departments and other systems — such as law enforcement — hindered an investigation in five cases.

One of the reports was on 7-year-old Chandler Grafner, who was starved by his foster parents, Jon Phillips and Sarah Berry, in 2007.

In December, a federal judge ruled that the Denver social workers who were involved with his case were not immune from a lawsuit filed by the boy's relatives. Phillips was sentenced to life in Chandler's death and Berry to 48 years.

Caleb's family members say they last saw the boy in January 2011. During the year he was missing, the boy's family said they called social services in three counties more than 70 times.

Human Services cannot release details about Caleb's case or confirm whether his family contacted county departments because the investigation into the boy's death is ongoing, and a Logan County judge issued a gag order in the case, McDonough said.

Dr. Kim Bundy-Fazioli, an associate professor at Colorado State University's School of Social Work, said the family's claims about unanswered calls for help are a concern.

"When families aren't making progress, there is a lot of chaos, and it can be overwhelming for case workers and service providers," Bundy-Fazioli said.

"You never know who to interview or who to trust, but it's not an excuse not to intervene."

Bundy-Fazioli also was concerned about decreased funding for county programs and increased caseloads for overwhelmed social workers, who often have to make judgment calls on high-priority cases and investigations.

Each of Colorado's 64 county departments are being asked to do more with less, said Becky Miller Updike, ombudsman with the Office of Colorado's Child Protection. Often, families in the most dire situations are also more transient, making it harder to track children through school systems and other county departments.

"We have to cut back dollars from our counties every year, causing us to ask them to do more with less," Miller Updike said.