Thu, 12/01/2012 - 11:29 — Lukes Dad
A family member holds an undated snapshot of two-year-old Kamilah Russell, left, and her 6-month-old sister Tania, Wednesday, March 10, 2010 in Oakland, Calif. Police say that Kamilah's mother has been charged in the smothering death of the toddler. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff File)
In April 2011, state auditors descended on Alameda County's Child and Family Services for the first round in a five-month review of documents involving children under the agency's care.
Alameda County officials said they were told the audit was routine. Instead, the state auditors criticized the agency for not formally reviewing the cases of four children who had died between 2008 and 2010 under its supervision.
The audit was requested by state Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, after the death of a 10-year-old boy in his district. The boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend despite numerous reports to protective services of abuse leading up to the boy's death.
In Alameda County, auditors singled out one case in particular involving Tiffany Lopez, a mother who was on bail after San Mateo County authorities arrested her on child-endangerment charges. She and her partner had moved with their children to Oakland, where a social worker closed an emotional abuse case involving the family despite misgivings. Less than a week later, Lopez was arrested on suspicion of suffocating her 2-year-old daughter, Kamilah Russell.
"Our review suggests that the agency could learn from these deaths," auditors said in the report released in October.
Perea said he wanted to identify policies and procedures that could be improved to protect children.
"California's children are slipping through the cracks," Perea wrote to the
audit committee in a February 2011 letter.
For the audit, the committee chose Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento and Alameda counties, based on their sizes.
According to the auditors, only Alameda County failed to conduct formal internal reviews into the deaths of each of the four children who had contact with social workers between 2008 and 2010 and later died from neglect or abuse. Fresno County formally reviewed four out of five incidents and Sacramento County nine out of 15 cases. Los Angeles refused to hand over records, delaying that audit's release until February 2012.
If Alameda County had formally reviewed Kamilah Russell's death, social workers could have been trained to handle the referral of other cases like it, the auditors said in the report. If the review showed a systemic problem, policies could be changed, auditors continued.
Michelle Love, director of Alameda County Children and Family Services, defended the agency. She said information was lost between the two counties and the audit report is missing details that would help explain what happened.
"It was a fluke," she said.
But the death of Kamilah Russell was not an isolated incident.
Records show that in 2003 the mother of a 3-year-old beaten to death by his father filed a lawsuit against child protective services and Oakland police for not reacting swiftly to signs that her son was in peril. The boy's stepmother, who stood by while Chazarus Hill Jr. was beaten, had already lost custody of her own four children.
In 2005, a schizophrenic woman, LaShuan Harris, threw her three children off a San Francisco fishing pier into the bay. Child protective services said at the time mental illness was not grounds for removing children from their parents. But Harris had been placed in the county's locked inpatient psychiatric hospital six times in less than a year, including once on an involuntary hold for cocaine and methamphetamine use. Harris' mother warned a social worker that the children were in danger on the day they died, but the social worker did not believe her, Harris' attorney told a jury during the trial.
The county also agreed to pay $2 million in 2009 to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf an infant who was left blind and brain-damaged from ongoing abuse by his father. Social workers had cleared the father to take custody of the infant despite a record of abuse and drug use, according to court documents. During a criminal-background check, they overlooked the father's record of domestic violence against the infant's mother. The couple had a long history of child abuse and neglect referrals made to the agency, court documents show. But the social workers assigned to the family failed to supervise the father or the well-being of the boy, according to the court records.
As of Dec. 29, 2011, a total of 2,212 children were under the agency's supervision, whether at home or in foster care.
Love said the agency already looks into cases in which children died while under agency supervision and that a formal internal review is not required by state law. But protective services is responding to the audit by creating a formal review process and will review cases dating back to July 2011. Otherwise, social workers are on target with or exceeding state requirements, she said.
But even the counties that weren't audited or that did complete child death reviews failed to put their own recommendations for policy change into action, according to Perea, who last week introduced the Safe Homes for Foster Children Act, which would require counties to complete a death review for every child who dies from abuse.
The audit also found registered sex offenders living or working in child care facilities and foster homes. One was in Richmond, although the sex offender appeared only to be associated with the owner. Officials shut down two foster homes and a family day-care home in Fresno and Visalia as a result of the audit's findings regarding sex offenders.
By Angela Woodall