By Mark Gutglueck
A backlog of evidence and witnesses being accumulated by investigators with the California Attorney General’s Office looking into criminal acts and negligence in San Berardino County’s Children And Family Services Department implicates San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos and one of his employees, deputy district attorney Michael Dauber in an effort to obstruct justice, information provided by some of those witnesses shows.
Among the witnesses having already provided or poised to provide information that Ramos and Dauber moved to terminate the 2015-16 San Bernardino County Grand Jury’s inquiry into abuse of children by their guardians and foster parents, including cases in which children died while under the purview of Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department, is the former San Bernardino County Superior Court presiding judge who has since been elevated to the State Appellate Court, as well as Children and Family Services Department case workers who sought to bring the incidents of abuse to light.
Going back as early as 2013, there were rumblings within the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department about both abusive biological parents as well as abusive foster parents entrusted with the care of children who were in the process of being placed for adoption. In several cases, those Children and Family Services Department employees’ concerns were not adequately addressed. Complicating the issue were the confidentiality restrictions imposed on the case files, making it difficult for those with concerns to bring the issues out into the open or to the attention of others outside the department for some means of resolution.
The San Bernardino County Grand Jury’s annual session runs in accordance with the governmental fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30. Late in the 2014-15 term, information was provided to the grand jury relating to the circumstance pertaining to the abuse of children under the Children and Family Services Department’s supervision. Because those reports arrived so late in the grand jury’s term, no official inquiry into the matter was opened, and the 2014-15 Grand Jury, which had as its adviser deputy district attorney Charles Umeda, made no reference to those issues in the final grand jury report, which was released on June 30/July1, 2015. At the end of July 2015, Umeda was appointed to serve as a Superior Court judge by Governor Jerry Brown. To replace Umeda, district attorney Mike Ramos selected deputy district attorney Michael Dauber to serve as grand jury adviser.
A member of the 2014-15 Grand Jury was James Wiebeld, who had retired as a sheriff’s deputy after a 30-year career in law enforcement. Wiebeld was a holdover to the 2015-16 Grand Jury, which after its ranks filled out, elected him sergeant-at-arms. Wiebeld sought to have the grand jury maintain its focus on several issues that had been taken up by the 2014-15 grand jury, which had in his view not been sufficiently resolved or reported in the 2014-15 Grand Jury’s report. Among those issues was that pertaining to the abuse of children under the purview of San Bernardino County Children and Family Services.
What Wiebeld and other grand jurors encountered, the Sentinel has been told, at first consisted of Dauber’s subtle effort to steer the grand jury away from the subject. When grand jurors persisted, Dauber used progressively firmer and eventually much harsher methods to discourage the investigation, ultimately resulting in the blunting of the investigation’s focus and its shift away from the nonfeasance, misfeasance and malfeasance within the Children and Family Services Department that allowed the criminal abuse and even deaths of some of the children at the hands of their parents and guardians to take place.
The failure of Children and Family Services to step in and stem the abuse was of moment with higher ranking elements in the county because attorneys had already been in contact with the families of some of the abused children and had initiated cases on behalf of those children and their families or were in the process of doing so.
To Ramos, who has striven to remain on favorable terms with both the county’s political establishment and its senior administrators, and to Dauber, who is answerable to Ramos, Wiebeld’s established status as a grand jury leader able to influence at least a handful of his colleagues on the panel heightened concern that they might be faced with a rogue grand jury that would take the focus on abused and dead children in a direction that could prove monetarily costly for the county.
That discomfort grew into a state of alarm, 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, the director of Children and Family Services, 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 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.
Before the grand jury’s term ended on June 30, six other members of the grand jury who had been sworn in on July 1, 2015 to serve a full year – Robert Turley, Benjamin Royland, Rebecca Fults, Allen Burt, Paul Gorsky, Douglas Kinzle – left, either voluntarily or as a result of having been shown the door. The mass exodus from the grand jury itself was telling: No grand jury in San Bernardino County going back to the 1970s had suffered anywhere approaching that number of defections. At last, when the grand jury delivered its final report for 2015-16, it was noted that social workers with the department did not make a practice of “recording interviews with clients” because “Children And Family Services management was uniformly opposed to the idea of tape recording client interviews… their stated reason for this opposition [being] confidentiality and possible intimidation of the client.” The report stated that “interviews with CFS [Child and Family Services] management revealed that social workers who had observed a parent under the influence did ‘not necessarily’ notify law enforcement or remove the child from the home.”
The report further noted “areas of concern about the relationship between CFS and law enforcement agencies. Interviews with law enforcement officers disclosed areas that potentially hindered investigations. Law enforcement officers disclosed, and CFS management confirmed, that CFS reports requested by law enforcement are first sent to county counsel [i.e., the county’s in-house lawyers] for review prior to being released. Law enforcement officers stated that CFS social workers are reluctant to remove abused and neglected children from their homes. Officers further stated that CFS does not always inform investigating officers of the location of a child, which causes delays in investigations.” The report also noted that law enforcement investigators “informed the grand jury that receiving redacted reports from Children and Family Services hinders their investigations” and prevents law enforcement officers from making so-called pretext calls to parents or guardians suspected of sexually abusing children.
The report stated that there were delays in Children and Family Services’ response to its request for information, including one in which it took the department “a period of seven months and 23 days from the date the request was submitted” to provide the information sought.
The report stated, “In interviews with county counsel employees it was stated that CFS is focused on family unification, while county counsel would prefer the safety of the child to supersede family unification. Additionally it was reported by law enforcement officers that CFS is interested in keeping families together while law enforcement seeks to arrest perpetrators of child abuse.”
The report states that there was a 15.5 percent rate of employee turnover in the Child and Family Services Department in 2013-14 and a 23.8 percent employee turnover in 2014-15, such that social workers are “overwhelmed” by heavy caseloads.
In the report there is no mention of the deaths of any children who fell under the rubric of the Children and Family Services Department system. Nor did the report make reference to reports received by the grand jury which indicated that social workers who had made an effort to bring incidents of the abuse of children to light had been actively discouraged from doing so.
The civil cases brought against the county by attorney Valerie Ross on behalf of former social workers Eric Bahra and Mary Whitehall allege higher-ups in the Children And Family Services Department sought to keep the abuse scandal under wraps. 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 comply with Bahra’s recommendation that the department move against the parents and have the children 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.
Just a week prior to the release of the grand jury’s final 2015-16 report, after the scandal pertaining to the abuse of children lodged in San Bernardino County’s foster care system had been percolating for months, the California Attorney General’s Office announced it was looking into allegations of failure to act with regard to the abuse of children or criminal negligence by the Department of Children and Family Services.
Unlike San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Michael Dauber, the grand jury adviser who last year threatened individuals with arrest if they were to disclose nonfeasance or misfeasance and malfeasance by Children and Family Services Department employees, California Attorney General Kamela Harris said publicly to San Bernardino County residents, “If you have any information about those agencies falling short of their duty, much less harming children, tell us because we are concerned and we’re paying attention and we’re prepared to prosecute.”
The Sentinel has learned that Harris’s investigators have been apprised of the effort to short-circuit the grand jury’s investigation last year and have been informed that grand jury members Robert Turley, Benjamin Royland, Rebecca Fults, Allen Burt, Paul Gorsky, Douglas Kinzle, and James Wiebeld can shed light on that incident, along with Appellate Court Justice Marsha Slough, who last year at the behest of grand jury adviser Michael Dauber and district attorney Mike Ramos removed Wiebeld from the grand jury. The investigators have also been provided with the names of Eric Bahra and Mary Whitehall as witnesses as to what occurred in the 2013-14 time frame internally at the Department of Children and Family Services.
This week, Valerie Ross, Bahra and Whitehall’s attorney, told the Sentinel, “Based on what I know of this case and what the attorney general has said, I believe her investigators would be very interested in interviewing my clients. As of today [Tuesday, July 12], I do not believe they have been interviewed, and I think I would know. I can’t say whether their being interviewed is imminent, but if we take the attorney general at her word, I believe they will be interviewed at some point.”
Ross told the Sentinel that in a conversation with Dauber last summer, he told her that if one of her clients came forward to speak about what she knew of Child and Family Services’ failure to act on child abuse cases, her client would be arrested. “He said that directly to me,” Ross said. Ross said she did not know whether Dauber had also repeated that threat to her client but that she assumed he had. “I know he did so through me,” Ross said.
Asked if she considered Dauber’s statement as an effort to dissuade a witness, Ross said, “I would draw that conclusion from that, obviously.”
Dauber did not respond to any of several phone calls or a letter seeking his version of events. He offered no response to questions as to whether his action had come at Ramos’s direction. Dauber declined to explain why he and Ramos had moved to have Wiebeld removed from the grand jury.
An unanswered question relating to what occurred in reaction to the attempt by the grand jury to take up the child abuse/Children and Family Services issue last year is what would have motivated Ramos and Dauber to shut the grand jury investigation down.
One individual steeped in the matter who agreed to speak to the Sentinel off the record said that county officials, including Ramos, have closed ranks to prevent abuse in county-supervised programs, such as those overseen by Children and Family Services, from being documented, because they fear the prospect that civil cases, in which the county has potential liability in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will be successfully prosecuted based upon that documentation. The district attorney’s office is running away from the subject and because it does not want to be put in the position of having to prosecute crimes against children involving foster parents, the Sentinel was told.
“Children and Family Services was a severely mismanaged office,” the source told the Sentinel. “There was lot of nepotism, with people who were not qualified holding supervisory positions, resulting in big errors. What I know is that there was systemic abuse that had gone on for 13 to 15 years, with 54 possible victims by the time this went over to the grand jury. This was a big deal. You had decisions being made by the department in individual cases in numbers that reflect gross ineptitude and negligence on a grand proportion. When a foster home is decertified, meaning a child or children are being removed from that foster home, that means they are never going to place another child in that home. But you had cases where a decertification had occurred, and another foster family agency with a county contract to supply homes never checked what had occurred involving the others, and children got placed back into the homes that had supposedly been decertified. Identifying information that would have prevented that from happening never got entered into the county’s system. This was extraordinarily bad. Later on, through a lawsuit, that information was coming up and they did everything they could to quash it. An investigator’s notes were deleted. There are Children and Family Services documents that are not correct. They were relying on doctored documents and they knew they were doctored. Confidentiality is supposed to be a shield that protects families and children but Children and Family Services and now the DA’s office is using confidentiality requirements as a sword against the whistleblowers so the county can operate unfettered. Money is at the base of this. If the investigation the grand jury wanted to do had gone ahead and the information got out, it would result in lawsuits that would bring the county to its knees.”
Asked about the progress of the attorney general’s office’s investigation and its timetable for working through the various witnesses to what had occurred in San Bernardino County, Rachele Huennekens the press secretary of the Office of the California Attorney General, said, “We can’t comment on any specific details about the investigation, in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing review.”
By Mark Gutglueck