Lois Henry

Saturday, Feb 02 2013 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Signs of improvement at child services office

By Lois Henry

In 2011 Child Protective Services workers took 838 children away from their parents for suspected abuse or neglect.

In 2012, that number was cut by nearly half, to 466.

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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.

And I'm willing to bet 2013 will see either similar numbers or a further decline.

That's because CPS is, apparently, now following the law, which mandates social workers must have a warrant before yanking kids out of homes.

Unless social workers have reason to believe a child is in imminent danger of being physically harmed or killed, they have to get a warrant.

That's not a new law. It's been that way all along.

But Kern's CPS, like most other child welfare agencies in California and around the nation, have operated under the belief they don't need a warrant to snatch kids.

Department of Human Services Director Pat Cheadle told me herself social workers didn't need warrants to take kids in cases of general neglect. Sexual and physical abuse cases are typically handled by law enforcement.

I asked Cheadle about the need for warrants last year when I started looking into the "general neglect" case of a local doctor who's children were taken because social workers thought the doctor was exposing the youngest child to unnecessary medical treatments.

Though CPS had been investigating the allegations against Dr. Christine Deeths for more than a month and did not have complete records in a complex medical case, a social worker went to Deeths' house on Feb. 25, 2011 while she was at work and took the youngest child as well as her older brother from the nanny.

No warrant and no warning.

Coincidentally, the county was already being sued in a similar case by Darlene McCue whose son had been taken by CPS from his school without a warrant after McCue was also accused of medically mistreating her boy.

The McCue suit resulted in a $1 million settlement in May 2012. Deeths didn't even have to file a lawsuit and Kern settled with her for $1.4 million in Dec. 2012.

As these cases made their way through the process and the stories became known to the public, a policy to require warrants on general neglect cases began to take shape.

It's still in draft form.

But the draft looks like a decent start, according to attorney Shawn McMillan who took part in both the McCue and Deeths cases. His firm has also successfully sued the Orange County Child and Family Services agency and other agencies for similar transgressions.

"I give Kern a lot of credit," McMillan said regarding the draft warrant policy. "They're doing the right thing."

Rather than dragging its feet through six years and more than $10 million in verdicts and settlements as Orange County has, he said, Kern is trying to fix the situation after only $2.4 million in losses.

He laid praise directly at the feet of Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations, whom he said looked at the problem objectively and quickly worked up a warrant policy.

"CPS' policies going into this were horrible. There weren't any," McMillan said. "But Mark got right on it."

For his part Nations would only say that he's given CPS some advice and training on the applicable law, but implementation is up to the agency.

Since the policy is still in "draft" form, I assume it hasn't yet been put into actual practice. But given the significantly reduced number of child removals in the last year, it's clear social workers already are being much more judicious.

The draft itself is fairly simple: social workers must get a judge to sign a warrant before taking a kid unless they have information causing them to believe the kid will be harmed in the time it takes to get a warrant.

Of course, there are numerous steps, including filling out a declaration statement with all the reasons the social worker believes the child should be taken, getting a supervisor to sign off, then getting a judge to sign, etc.

It's similar to Orange County's policy except there are not after-hours provisions.

Orange County also requires social workers to get warrants before they can go into a home without consent. I didn't see that in Kern's draft policy and think that's something that should be addressed as well.

For anyone concerned that taking time to get a warrant could so gum up the process that children will suffer, McMillan pointed out that social workers can always act on "obvious danger."

"It's not a super tough hurdle to meet. All the social worker needs to have is 'reasonable and articulable evidence.' This is a pretty low bar."

Both Los Angeles and Orange counties have implemented solid warrant procedures without any incidents of harm, he said.

Far from causing more harm, I think a reasonable warrant policy will go a long way to reducing family trauma.

Had the social worker in Dr. Deeths' case been forced to explain to a judge she wanted to take Deeths' children based on concerns by three doctors (one of whom had never even treated the youngest child), no actual, identifiable harm and with only a handful of medical records in a very complex case, I can't imagine she'd have gotten her warrant.

Kern County taxpayers wouldn't be out $1.4 million and two little kids wouldn't have been put through hell.

Remember, this is an agency with incredible power. Warrants are just one small check.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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