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.