State Probe Of SBC Foster System Signals Harris’s Disillusion With Ramos

In a development of tremendous political import at both the state and county level, the California Attorney General’s Office this week announced it is looking into allegations of nonfeasance, misfeasance and malfeasance by San Bernardino County’s Department of Children and Family Services employees which resulted in foster children being severely abused or dying at the hands of their adoptive parents or guardians.
That action comes nearly a year after such allegations surfaced and the San Bernardino County Grand Jury began looking into those circumstances. The grand jury’s efforts were short circuited, however, when certain county officials became alarmed over the potential liability issues associated with the circumstances under investigation. In particular, a grand juror who was pressing for the investigation to continue was removed from that panel in October, leading to accusations that San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos and the deputy district attorney who was installed last year as the grand jury adviser, Michael Dauber, were purposefully obstructing the grand jury’s investigative efforts.
In the midst of the current election year, with California Attorney General Kamala Harris vying for U.S. Senator, her office has refocused attention on the foster child abuse issue in San Bernardino County, knelling a break between Harris and Ramos, who in some circles was considered to be Harris’s potential replacement as attorney general if her senatorial bid succeeds in November.
The California Attorney General’s interest in the situation in San Bernardino County comes almost three months after allegations that abused children had languished and died in the foster care system just across the county line. In April, former Los Angeles County social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were charged with felony child abuse, negligence and falsifying public records in connection with the death of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy who died in the care of a guardian in Palmdale.
The Palmdale case paralleled the cases of two children in San Bernardino County. Last year current and former social workers contacted the San Bernardino County Grand Jury, alleging that children under foster care, including at least two who died, had been subjected to abuse or sadistic treatment by their guardians, and that when higher-ups in the San Bernardino County’s Department of Children and Family Services learned of what had happened, they took inadequate corrective action and covered up what had occurred.
At least two of those former workers who sought to bring the circumstance to light were retaliated against, they now claim. Moreover, when the grand jury began to follow up the reports that reached it, the investigation was quashed by Ramos, Dauber and then-San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Marsha Slough.
Former San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department detective James Wiebeld was a member of the 2014-15 Grand Jury and was a holdover onto the 2015-16 Grand Jury, having been selected to serve as the panel’s sergeant-at-arms. He was one of the grand jurors most animated about the foster child abuse issue, and by mid-summer 2015 was aggressively pushing the grand jury to step up that and other investigations.
Ramos was alerted to Wiebeld’s agitating along these lines as early as late July 2015, when the grand jury’s adviser, deputy district attorney Charles Umeda, was elevated by Governor Jerry Brown to the position of Superior Court judge. In the vacuum created by Umeda’s departure, Wiebeld’s established status as a grand jury leader of sorts raised Ramos’s concern that he might be faced with a rogue grand jury.
His fears and alarm, as well as that of other high-ranking county officials, were confirmed when on August 27, 2015, Fox 11 News in Los Angeles reported that “children who were under the supervision of the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services … were being abused, tortured, and killed.” According to that report, in certain cases, children had been entrusted to foster parents who had previously been caught abusing children living in their homes. In one of those cases, according to Fox 11, a child had died at the hand of an abusive foster parent after the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services was made aware of the sadistic nature of that foster parent. The Fox 11 News report made reference to an ongoing grand jury investigation.
The following day, Friday August 28, a special meeting was convened at the county administrative building which was attended by County Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, District Attorney Mike Ramos, Children and Family Services Director Marlene Hagen and a handful of other high level county officials. The primary topic discussed, the Sentinel was told by a reliable source, was the formulation of a cover story and talking points calculated to defuse the issue of negligence in the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department which led to the deaths of children in the foster parent system it oversaw.
The county, through its official spokesman, David Wert, has denied that Devereaux spoke to the district attorney on August 28 or that he had ever spoken to Ramos about Children and Family Services or grand jury matters.
Forthwith, however, county officials in August and September moved to identify those responsible for the leaks that resulted in the foster child deaths becoming public and sought to squelch any further release of information. Grand jurors, whose investigations and proceedings are considered to be confidential and are informed of such and sworn to secrecy when a grand jury is impaneled, were threatened with arrest and prosecution if they violated that oath.
In September, attorney Valerie Ross filed lawsuits against the county on behalf of former social workers Eric Bahra and Mary Anna Whitehall. Those lawsuits alleged that Bahra and Whitehall were pressured to remain silent about what they knew of the abuse of children in the foster system, and when they did not they were retaliated against.
Wiebeld was suspected of being Fox 11’s source for its August 27 report and subsequent follow-ups. District Attorney Mike Ramos accompanied his office’s grand jury advisor, deputy district attorney Michael Dauber, and a single member of the grand jury to the office of Marsha Slough, who was then the presiding judge of the San Bernardino County Superior Court. Wiebeld, Slough was told, was proving disruptive. Slough subsequently summoned Wiebeld to her office. She informed him that he was an at-will volunteer and that his services were no longer needed. After Wiebeld was bounced from the panel, Dauber, with some prevarication, told the remaining members of the grand jury that Wiebeld had voluntarily resigned his commission as a grand juror for personal reasons.
For months these events have percolated throughout the county. There have been recurrent reports, some of which have made it into press and other media accounts, that county officials have closed ranks to prevent abuse in county-supervised programs, such as those overseen by Children and Family Services, from being documented, such that civil cases, in which the county has potential liability in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars – are rendered unviable. This has allegedly involved the district attorney’s office refusing to prosecute crimes against children involving foster parents.
The Bahra and Whitehall civil cases shed light on those allegations.
Whitehall claims she stood witness to an effort to discredit Bahra after he locked onto a series of cases involving some 39 children who had been placed into the care of a single foster father over a period of 12 years, during which time accusations surfaced that the foster father had sexually abused some of his charges, including photographing them nude. Bahra who was just short of serving out his 12-month probationary period as a county employee, was terminated after he raised the issue of inadequate cross-referencing of abuse reports in the department’s computer system in June 2013 and then sealed his fate the next month by reporting that he suspected one or both parents of an infant who had died showed signs of methamphetamine use and that the dead child’s four siblings appeared to have been abused.
According to Whitehall, supervisors in the Department of Children and Family Services did not move against the parents Bahra had reported to comply with his recommendation that the children be placed into foster care, but acted against Bahra for having breached confidentiality and for having falsified his reports. The Department of Children and Family Services’ rejection of Bahra’s recommendation, according to Whitehall and Ross, endangered the safety of the four surviving children.
According to Whitehall’s suit, she and two of Bahra’s colleagues went to the extraordinary step of filing motions in juvenile dependency court alleging their employer, the Department of Children and Family Services, committed fraud upon the court as part of an effort to discredit Bahra and justify his firing. Six days later, Whitehall was placed on administrative leave. She later resigned.
Locked in a tough political battle against fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez for Senator in the upcoming November election, Harris this week used the bully pulpit of her position as attorney general to strengthen her position, latching onto her putative role as the protector of those who cannot defend themselves in announcing, “The Bureau of Children’s Justice is investigating San Bernardino County’s compliance with California laws intended to ensure the safety and well-being of children, including children in the dependency system.”
This was widely seen as a slap at Ramos, with whom Harris, as a prosecutor, has been close over the last five years. Indeed, Ramos two years ago formed an exploratory committee with regard to a possible run for California Attorney General in 2018. This signal that he is interested in stepping up to become the state’s top prosecutor opened the possibility that, were Harris to be elected to the Senate this year necessitating that she resign as attorney general, Ramos might garner the governor’s appointment to serve out the final two years on her current term.
There are reasons for and against such a move by Governor Jerry Brown, who is, like Harris, a Democrat. Ramos is a Republican. Thus, his partisan affiliation would seem to auger against his appointment as attorney general. Nevertheless, his heretofore affinity with Harris and his efforts to establish himself as a staunch law-enforcement advocate could be seen as qualifiers for the job if Brown were to choose to make history by ignoring his party affiliation and appointing him as California’s first Hispanic attorney general.
This week’s development in which Harris tacitly acknowledged that as San Bernardino County’s top prosecutor Ramos has done an inadequate job in investigating and prosecuting cases of horrendous abuse against children within the county’s foster child care system would seem to indicate that Ramos’s vision of acceding to California Attorney General by appointment is no longer even a pipe dream.

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