By Mark Gutglueck
Just ahead of Mike Ramos’s departure as San Bernardino County district attorney, the county administrative office has entered into a side agreement with the union representing 545 of the county’s child and family services division case workers that will reduce their case loads.
The agreement is seen as a hedge against the future possibility that some of the county’s case workers might be charged with criminal neglect of the children whose welfare and lives it is their job to protect.
Across the county line, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has filed criminal charges against social workers Patricia Clement and Stefanie Rodriguez and their supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt, who are accused of ignoring obvious evidence of repeated abuse of a child who ultimately succumbed to the beatings inflicted upon him by his mother and her boyfriend in 2014. And word is that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is on verge of moving against another set of social workers who either missed or ignored signs of abuse suffered by another child who died in an abusive domestic situation earlier this year.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has vowed to make cases against neglectful social workers who had been assigned to cases involving children who later died at the hands of their parents or foster care providers. One such celebrated case out of Los Angeles County is that of Anthony Avalos, who died in June, apparently at the hands of his 28-year-old mother, Heather Maxine Barron, and her live-in boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, after Los Angeles County Child and Family Services case workers ignored the entreaties of one of Anthony’s aunts to look into her concerns that the ten-year-old boy was being physically abused and starved. She said case workers ignored her entreaties to look into her warnings. Another such case, the one which has resulted in the criminal prosecution of Clement, Rodriguez, Bom and Merritt, is that of Gabriel Fernandez, who also lived, and ultimately died, in the Los Angeles County community of Palmdale. Fernandez was 8 years old when he died in 2014, after sustaining an extended period of abuse perpetrated by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. An investigation was launched into the circumstances surrounding young Fernandez’s death. That investigation concluded in 2016 with a finding that the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services had on multiple instances been alerted to the abusive conditions Gabriel Fernandez was subjected to but had not acted to remove him from the situation which ultimately led to his death.
The charges filed against the social workers in the Fernandez death case could result in 10 year prison sentences if the accused are convicted.
In San Bernardino County, there have been recurrent reports of similar cases involving children’s deaths as well as ones where children had not died, but had been subjected to physical and sexual abuse by their legal guardians, and that the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services had failed and continues to fail to intervene on those children’s behalf.
This state of affairs has flourished, some have charged, because outgoing District Attorney Mike Ramos has shied away from prosecuting indolent social workers. That reluctance is an outgrowth of Ramos’s concern that filing such charges would establish virtually all of the grounds that would be needed by an individual with standing, such as a surviving family member of a dead child, to launch and prevail in a civil suit against the county that would potentially cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Going back at least 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. Late in its 2014-15 term, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury had been provided with evidence and information relating to circumstances of apparent 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/July 1, 2015. The grand jury’s annual session runs in accordance with the governmental fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30.
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 nor reported in the 2014-15 Grand Jury’s report. Among those issues was that pertaining to the abuse of children under the purview of the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department.
When Wiebeld and other grand jurors sought to proceed with that investigation, they were met with Dauber’s at first subtle and then progressively firmer and eventually much harsher methods to discourage them, which ultimately resulted 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.
Frustrated with the thwarting of what they considered to be a legitimate and extremely important inquiry, some of the grand jurors made sub rosa statements to the media in an effort to get Dauber off top dead center. 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, put together by correspondent Gina Silva, 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 hands 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. Instantaneously, an issue which county officials had every confidence they might keep buried had leapt into the public spotlight, and was garnering attention at the regional, state, national and international level.
The following day, Friday August 28, a special meeting was convened at the county administrative building which was attended by then-County Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, District Attorney Mike Ramos, the director of the Children and Family Services Department, 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 has since officially disavowed that any such meeting took place, or that Devereaux spoke to the district attorney on August 28 or any other time 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.
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.
Wiebeld was suspected of being Fox 11’s source for its August 27 report and subsequent follow-ups. District Attorney 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, 2016, 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 and 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 provided a watered-down treatment of fact with regard to the circumstance in the Children and Family Services Department which raised some valid issues, but nonetheless avoided going too deeply into areas that would make public the very real issues relating to shortcomings and failures that led to the perpetuation of abuse and in some instances resulted in death. Such documentation would have opened the county, officials believed, to potential lawsuits from either the family members of the abused or dead children or the surviving children themselves who might be represented by an attorney.
The report 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 the grand jury’s 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 noted 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 was 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 alleged 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, the department claimed, 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.
Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris at the time said she was on top of the situation in San Bernardino County. With her subsequent departure to the U.S. Senate, she has not responded to multiple inquiries from the Sentinel as to what information her investigation had unearthed and what action was to be taken or what measures were being employed to remedy the circumstance.
Bahra’s suit was scheduled to go to trial in May 2017, but just ahead of the trial, Bahra and the county were consigned to a mediation, after which all activity relating to the suit ceased.
Whitehall’s case is now scheduled to go to trial before a yet-to-be-selected jury on February 25, 2019.
More than five months ago, District Attorney Ramos was defeated in his re-electoral effort in the June Primary. He lost that contest to Jason Anderson, a one-time Ontario city councilman who was also previously a deputy prosecutor working under Ramos. Anderson left the office over differences he had with Ramos over policy and prosecutorial standards. Among county higher-ups there is concern that Anderson will not show the same consideration toward downplaying action by county employees who are arguably or conceivably engaged in criminal negligence as a consequence of their performance or lack thereof in their official duty. This concern extends in particular to the Children and Family Services Department, where a lack of focus or diligence could result in children, who are unable to protect themselves, being vulnerable to potentially life-threatening circumstances.
A factor impacting the ability of Children and Family Services personnel to apply the requisite focus and diligence to ensure the safety of the children it is their responsibility to oversee is the sheer volume of their case loads, which the employees’ union maintains prevents them from devoting enough time and attention to the individual cases to ensure proper scrutiny is being given to each child within the department’s purview.
In an effort to protect 545 case workers employed within Children and Family Services, who are known in the county’s human resources parlance as the Children and Family Services Professional Unit, their union, Service Employees International Union Local 721, last week officially entered into a so-called “side letter agreement” with the county intended to limit their case loads to prevent them from being swamped with cases that might overwhelm their ability to detect abuse of the sort that could put the children they are responsible for in danger.
In a report dated November 6, 2018, which corresponds to the same date that the county board of supervisors ratified the side agreement with a unanimous vote, County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride wrote, “On July 12, 2016, the board of supervisors approved the initial memorandum of understanding between the County of San Bernardino and the Service Employees International Union Local 721 representing employees in the professional unit. The memorandum of understanding included the establishment of a Children and Family Services Labor Management Committee that is dedicated to increasing the overall number of case-carrying social service practitioners within the Children and Family Services Department, reducing the average level of cases and referrals assigned to the Children and Family Services social service practitioners, and assigning caseloads more equitably so that social service practitioners will not have significantly higher caseloads than other workers on the same type of assignment performing similar tasks. The memorandum of understanding also included a provision that between six months and one year following board approval of the memorandum of understanding, Service Employees International Union Local 721 had the option to request to re-open the restructure and range adjustments article to meet and confer with management on the caseloads and workloads of social service practitioners assigned to the Children and Family Services Department.”
McBride’s report continued, “Following board approval of the memorandum of understanding, representatives of the county and representatives of Service Employees International Union Local 721 regularly met as part of the Children and Family Services Department Labor Management Committee to discuss and address caseload issues. Further, Service Employees International Union Local 721 also timely exercised its option to re-open the memorandum of understanding. The parties have continued to meet and confer with the following goals in mind: establishing a safe reduction in the number of children entering out-of-home care; increasing timely permanency (including family reunification, legal guardianship and adoption) for children in out-of-home care; reducing children re-entering out-of-home care; reducing maltreatment of children in out-of-home care; increasing placement stability for children in out-of-home care; increasing foster children placed with siblings; and increasing foster children placed in relative and non-relative extended family member care.”
According to McBride, “On September 28, 2018, the parties reached a proposed side letter agreement that will aid in realizing the above mentioned goals. For example, the proposed side letter agreement will establish caseload management controls in an effort to equitably distribute caseloads. A quarterly caseload analysis will be used as a mechanism by which caseload inequities are identified, analyzed, and plans for reallocation of staff and/or cases are developed for implementation. In pursuit of this, staff and/or cases may be reassigned within and between offices and regions to achieve an equitable balance provided, however, there shall be no disruption of the services plan for the child. Further, the parties also agreed that management shall ensure that there is a system in place for monitoring each social service practitioner’s individual caseload and for assigning new cases to assure equitable distribution of cases in pursuit of caseload goals. It is the social service practitioner’s responsibility to diligently perform case practice and case management activities in an efficient manner and to work productively with the supervisor to identify and implement solutions to any case practice and case management issues inhibiting the safe transfer or closure of cases. In situations when caseloads exceed the caseload goals, the parties have developed a process by which to resolve the caseload distribution.”
The board approved the side letter agreement, whereupon it was deemed effective immediately and established what McBride said are “attainable caseload goals.” He said it is the county’s goal to “implement collaborative methods to regularly monitor the equitable distribution of cases, and ultimately assist in reducing caseloads. Caseload reduction allows social workers to spend the time necessary to engage and support children and families in a manner consistent with the County Vision.”
The County Vision is county’s declared standard of operating to intensify the efficiency and reach of county government and enhance the quality of life of the county’s residents.
McBride said the terms contained in the side letter agreement are “in direct support of the Children and Family Services Department’s mission. Caseload reduction allows for high quality assessments and interventions that protect children, safely reduce the number of children entering foster care, improve permanency and well-being for children already in foster care, and reduce maltreatment of children in foster care.”
By Mark Gutglueck