San Bernardino County Takes It On The Jaw With $2.5M Whistleblower Suit Verdict

A social worker who in 2013 was fired for exposing that the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services had allowed foster children to be placed into the home of a known abuser was awarded $2.5 million by a federal jury in the aftermath of his whistleblower lawsuit against the county.
Then-31-year old Eric Bahra was working for the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services as a social worker in the Spring of 2013 when he was assigned to investigate claims by foster children that they were being molested by their former foster father, Leonardo Rodriguez. The children had been removed from the care of Rodriquez and his wife, Maria, in January 2013 and placed in another foster home. One of the youngest children, at that point in another foster home, confided to her new foster mother that her former foster father, later identified as Leonardo Rodriquez, had been molesting her.
After Bahra was assigned to the case, he arranged for the girl and her sister to be interviewed at his department’s assessment center in San Bernardino. Bahra and a detective assigned to the sheriff’s department’s crimes against children unit monitored that interview as it was ongoing.
Among the things the girls revealed was that after he molested them, Leonardo Rodriguez would photograph them naked and put the photos in an album which contained photographs of other nude children. They said Rodriguez told them he always did this to the youngest of his foster children.
The girls’ suggestion that Rodriguez had abused others before them did not gibe with reports Bahra and the detective had been provided with by the department of children and family services. Documents from the department showed the Rodriguezes had been serving as foster parents for over ten years and there were no complaints – referred to in children and family services parlance as referrals – pertaining to either of Leonardo or Maria.
The detective asked Bahra to learn from the department of children and family services the number of children placed in the Rodriguez home over the previous decade. Bahra went to his office in Victorville and spoke with a department manager, who directed him to another manager, who then along with Eric and another couple of supervisors produced a list of former foster children who had been placed in the Rodriguez home over the years, a total of 54 children.
Within moments after Bahra obtained the list, one of the office supervisors emailed a high-ranking supervisor in the office and asked him if it would be acceptable for Bahra to forward the information on the 54 children in the Rodriguez home to the sheriff’s detecitve. Bahra was given go-ahead to do so.
Bahra recognized that foster family situations in general generate plenty of investigation referrals – complaints – many or a majority of which express dissatisfaction or unhappiness on the part of children under foster care or the biological parents of the children who have been removed from their homes. Rarely do these picayune matters represent any serious transgression on the part of a foster parent or foster parents, and accordingly are deemed to be without substance and not sustained. It struck Bahra as odd that in the department’s data base on foster parents, there were no complaints about the Rodriguezes, who had been foster parents for 12 years at that point.
Armed with the names of the children who had been fostered in the Rodriguez household, Bahra did a “reverse search” into the matter, going through the names of the children to find their placement histories. In that fashion, he found that of the 54 children placed in the Rodriguez home, 11 had made complaints resulting in referrals for investigation. Of those 11 referrals pertaining to mistreatment of the children or physical abuse that was not deemed sexual in nature, Bahra learned, seven had been sustained, that is, found to be valid, resulting in the children being removed from the Rodriguez home. Bahra noted that once the referrals had been made and after the investigations concluded and the children removed, the referrals and their results were never tracked by other social workers. Children were removed from the Rodriguez home under the watch of one social worker, but subsequently other children were placed into the Rodriguez home by other social workers, in what was described as “a revolving door situation.”
Bahra made further inquiries, looking at what was available to him, and he saw that social workers for more than ten years had not recorded information about the Rodriguez couple accurately, sometimes misspelling “Rodriguez” as “Rodriquez,” using an incorrect social security number for either Leonardo or Maria, transposing the birth dates for Leonardo with Maria or vice versa and making other entry errors. In the Rodriguezes’ foster parenting file there was no mention whatsoever of the 11 complaints or seven that had been sustained. Bahra also learned that Leonardo and Maria had been decertified as as foster parents by one foster agency, but that county officials had gone to another, San Bernardino-based Children’s Way Foster Family Agency, to have them recertified.
Bahra at that point collated all the information, data and documents he had relating to the Rodriguezes, and provided it to one of his supervisors, Kristine Burgamy.
Burgamy responded, asking if Bahra had provided the sheriff’s detective with the list of 54 children who had been under foster care in the Rodriguez home. Bahra indicated that he had. Burgamy asked then if he had provided the detective with the information about the decertification of the Rodriguezes by one foster agency and its recertification by another, after which placements of foster children into the Rodriguez household had continued. When Bahra said that he had not yet done that, Burgamy instructed him to not provide that information to the sheriff’s department.
The following day, Bahra came into his office to find Burgamy, together with the deputy director of the Victorville children and family services office, Nicola Hackett, going through his desk and the documents therein and thereon. Hackett and Burgamy “ordered Mr. Bahra to do no further investigation on what he had found and ordered Mr. Bahra to turn over all of his investigative documents to them,” according to Bahra’s lawsuit, filed by attorney Valerie Ross.
From that point on, Bahra encountered an almost nightmarish overreaction to his efforts to carry out what he thought the focus of his function was, that being to look after the best interests of the children in the county-administered foster system. Those who had advanced in the department of children and family services, he learned, were more concerned in protecting the county governmental structure from liability after incidents of abuse of foster children occurred than in examining the shortcomings in the system and adjusting or correcting them to prevent abusive foster parents from remaining in place, as revelations of such matters would result in unwanted scrutiny and negative publicity.
Burgamy and Hackett were concerned in particular about Bahra having in his possession the so-called “M” files. The M refers to the first letter in the last name of five siblings who had been in the care of the Rodriguezes, and the abuse they had been subjected to while there. Ultimately, an attorney had learned of what the children had been subjected to, and he sued the county and the Rodriquezes on their behalf. Ultimately, when that case went to trial in 2017, the five children and their family were awarded $712,500, $302,500 of which was put up by the County of San Bernardino, $375,000 from Children’s Way Foster Family Agency and $35,000 from the Rodriguezes.
In 2013, however, well before the attorney for the five children had taken up their case, county officials were concerned about the liability they might have if details about what had occurred became public. At once, Hackett, Burgamy and other higher-ups in the children and family services department set about seeking to discredit Bahra, which included “making book” on him, a move preparatory to orchestrating his firing. They placed into his personnel file numerous demerits with regard to his performance and comportment, including cooked-up allegations of being uncooperative, rude, discourteous or insulting to his colleagues and supervisors, scheduling activity on the part of his colleagues without coordinating with them and engaging in violations of the confidentiality of the foster parents and children, most notably when he had disclosed information about a 4-year-old foster child having been sexually abused to those the department of children and family services deemed were not entitled to know of it.
Orchestrating Bahra’s firing presented a challenge, however, since just before the incident involving Burgamy and Hackett rifling through his desk, he had been given an “excellent” rating in a job performance evaluation. Moreover, his colleagues held him in high regard.
To buttress their case, department directors sought to get one of Bahra’s colleagues, Mary Anna Whitehall, to provide testimony that Bahra had provided falsified documentation with regard to an investigation he had been assigned previously relating to the death of a child in foster care. Whitehall, however, refused to support the department administration in that effort. As a consequence, she, too, became persona non grata with the department of children and family services and was put on administrative leave. To avoid being terminated, she resigned.
Initially, the county began termination proceedings against Bahra based on seven allegations, then increased that to 20 allegations, thereafter reducing it down to 12 accusations.
Ultimately, on October 7, 2013, one month shy of achieving the two-year end of his probationary status as a county children and family services employee, Bahra was terminated.
He retained Ross, who has a law office in Victorville, to represent him.
Ross filed suit on Bahra’s behalf in federal court.
The case was assigned to Federal Judge Jesus Bernal, who, in accordance with then-current case law, dismissed the complaint based upon the county’s contention that Bahra had not exhausted all of his administrative remedies before filing suit. Bernal’s ruling, however, came on the very day that an appeals court, in the case of Taswell v. the Regents of the University of California, ruled that following such an administrative appeal procedure against an entity that made a firing in bad faith should not preclude a plaintiff from pursuing the remedy of a legal action if that individual has been, arguably, unjustifiably terminated by the entity that would conduct the administrative examination of the termination.
Ultimately, Bahra’s case was reinstated and the matter came back to Bernal’s courtroom. By that point Ross had associated herself with regard to Bahra’s case with the Sausalito-based father/son legal team of Charles and A. Cabral Bonner.
Ross and the Bonners represented Bahra in a jury trial before Judge Bernal that concluded Thursday. The jury made unanimous findings in Bahra’s favor, the first of which was that Bahra disclosed to the department and the sheriff’s investigator “a systemic failure in the operation, maintenance and monitoring of the case management database system that resulted in children being placed in the home of known abusers.” Furthermore, the jury found that Bahra had “reasonable grounds to believe that the information disclosed a violation of state and federal laws including the Adoption and Safe Families Act and that his “disclosure of information [was] a contributing factor in the County of San Bernardino’s decision to terminate [him].”
The county further determined Bahra suffered harm as a result of what the county did and that the county failed to “prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have terminated Eric Bahra anyway at the time for legitimate, independent reasons.”
The jury found Bahra was due $503,093 in past economic loss, including wages lost, and that he was due another $2 million for “past non-economic loss, including mental and emotional pain and suffering.”
Ross told the Sentinel, “I always knew we had a strong case. This was like a slow-moving freight train going down the track to a certain conclusion, which was reflected in the jury’s verdict. The county needed Eric out of that office because the “M” children were going to be suing, and they had to discredit him because they knew that outside of management there was no one else who knew what had really occurred, and if he was called upon to testify, he was going to do so truthfully. This case showed that child and family services managers are willing to engage in fraudulent activity to protect themselves and the county.”
Ross said, “Having associated with Charles and Cabral Bonner was a tremendous advantage. Cabral did the direct examination of Eric, which was one of the most compelling expositions I have ever seen in a courtroom. That, I believe is what won the case. Charles handled the closing arguments, and he was excellent, and then he obliterated the county’s case with a standout rebuttal.”
Bahra, who has since found work as a therapist at High Desert Psychological Services in Victorville, said, “I feel a great sense of relief for myself that I can finally close this chapter of my life, but I still have a great sense of sadness and worry for the children in San Bernardino County. It was made clear during trial the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department has made no changes in eight years in how they address this systemic problem of placing foster children in the homes of known abusers. This continues to place foster children at risk of abuse in foster homes in San Bernardino County. My hope is that this verdict will shine a spotlight on this issue and help to protect the foster children in San Bernardino County.”
Whitehall is also pursuing a case against San Bernardino County. Unlike Bahra’s matter, hers has been filed in state court. Despite her case having twice been dismissed at the trial court level, two appeals that went all the way to the California Supreme Court have put Whitehall’s matter on track to go to trial later this year.
-Mark Gutglueck

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