By Lois Henry
I said on Sunday that when a public agency with the power to tear families apart operates with impunity we have a problem.Well, we have another one.
And that is, the politicians who are the only ones with any reins at all on that agency apparently don't give a rip.
Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
That's my conclusion after calling each member of the Board of Supervisors about the case I outlined in Sunday's paper and getting calls back from only two, Karen Goh and Ray Watson.
Goh's answer about whether she felt there should be greater oversight of the Kern County Child Protective agency, in particular, and the Department of Human Services, overall, was that she needed more information.
She's said that before and, frankly, I'm not seeing much action. But I suppose that's better than Watson's response.
He chastised me for having the audacity to outline a particularly appalling case in the newspaper (egads!). And said it was "unfair" to lay out details of a very "important and difficult case" in the public eye.
Ummmm. That was kind of the point of the story.
The story was about a local doctor, "Helen," whose two children were taken by CPS without a warrant, on the mere say-so of two doctors who claimed the younger child was being harmed by mom exposing her to unnecessary medical procedures for made up diseases. If CPS had reviewed the actual medical records they would have seen that the child was indeed diagnosed with what mom said and her treatments were prescribed by doctors.
But CPS did not have those records when it decided to take the kids. The county's attorneys and juvenile court didn't even have complete records as they proceeded to force Helen into a no-contest plea or be without her children for the length of the trial, possibly two years.
Nonetheless, Watson said "this is not something to be decided in the newspaper.
"There have been two doctors, two lawyers and one judge, if not a second judge, who will have dealt with this case," he said. "To say it has not been attended to, I think, is incorrect."
Can I get a volunteer to read the story to Watson and explain the salient points?
Such as: Those doctors, lawyers and judges weren't in a position to make adequate decisions without all the evidence.
Either way, Watson insisted this was a situation best handled by "counsel."
Oh boy. I pointed out that the only bosses Department of Human Services Director Pat Cheadle has are five politicians, him among them.
"I have great confidence in Ms. Cheadle," Watson said.
If that's the case then I'm sure she can stand up to a little questioning from the supervisors.
Lest you think I'm picking on Watson unduly, Helen happens to live in his district. He is her representative. As she was going through this little nightmare, she and family members sent numerous letters to each supervisor and every other elected official in Kern Country trying to get some kind of help, or even acknowledgement.
Only State Sen. Michael Rubio would meet with her, Helen told me.
"He said I should go to the press," she recalled.
Watson flat out ignored every letter and request for a meeting.
"Finally, one of his staff people told us we should just file a lawsuit," she told me.
Now that sounds like Kern County leadership at its finest -- "No subpoena? No problem!"
Cheadle, through a DHS spokeswoman declined comment for this story.
But Goh did tell me that in her quest for more information, her first call was to Cheadle who apparently said that when she (Cheadle) told me the department doesn't need a warrant to take a child, it was in a different context.
Let me clear up a few things right now.
I asked about Helen's case but was told that DHS wouldn't talk about it even though it had been closed and Helen offered to sign a waiver allowing officials to discuss it.
So, I asked about policies. Particularly the department's policy on warrants.
In cases of general neglect, which this was, Cheadle told me, the department does not need a warrant if they believe the child to be in imminent risk.
I asked repeatedly about that because I wanted to be sure I understood the policy.
She and CPS director Antanette Jones told me the same thing each time -- the department doesn't need a warrant as long as they believe the child is in imminent risk.
No nuances, no other context. That's what they said straight up.
And it is correct, up to a point.
However, the definition of imminent risk is where I believe Kern County has it wrong. Imminent risk has been defined by the courts as meaning the social worker believes the child would be at risk of injury or death in the few hours it would take to get a warrant.
Imminent risk doesn't mean you can wait a day or more to take the kids, as happened in Helen's case.
If social workers feel they can safely wait that long, then they can darn well take the time to get a warrant so there's another set of eyes on what will likely be the most traumatic event on that child's life.
Studies have shown that being yanked out of even the most tormenting home is extremely difficult for children.
Social workers know that, of course, and make sure at least one supervisor concurs with their decision, I've been told. On "high profile" cases, involving people like lawyers or doctors, it's my understanding the decision gets moved up several rungs.
Apparently, social workers have changed tactics somewhat in recent weeks, running most general neglect removals through juvenile court. That supposedly is in response to settlement talks on a federal lawsuit filed over CPS taking a 6-year-old boy from school with no warrant in 2008.
In that case, CPS accused Darlene and Larry McCue of fabricating or exaggerating their child's medical conditions (very similar to Helen's case) and kept the boy for four months. The juvenile court eventually ordered him returned after finding no basis for the removal.
The McCues sued in federal court. The Board of Supervisors considered an initial settlement two weeks ago.
They're still in negotiations, Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations told me. He believes a resolution is close, however.
Meanwhile, he confirmed, CPS is working on a warrant policy.
"It will take time to get it done and then it has to be vetted to make sure it works," he said of the warrant policy.
Yes, we wouldn't want anyone to go off half cocked, now would we?
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Californian.