An examination of how Los Angeles County officials have restricted information about the controversial, abuse-related deaths of children under the jurisdiction of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) found on Monday that in many cases "there may be either conscious or unconscious incentives for child protective service officials to adopt a narrow" view of what documents need to be released under state law.
The county Office of Independent Review examination also found that, in the last year or so, law enforcement almost uniformly objected to the release of such information, making it difficult for county supervisors and media outlets alike not only to get to the bottom of the juvenile deaths, but in some cases to even be aware that abuse might have been a factor in their demise.
Release of public files in the deaths "have largely been forestalled by the 2009 and 2010 blanket objections lodged by law enforcement," according to the review. (Background, from the DCFS's point of view, via PDF).
Detectives with open cases often don't want potential suspects to know what cards they might be holding. But Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in response to the report late Monday that " ... a blanket objection to releasing information, when invoked to protect a police investigation, must not be used to smother information to which the public has a right to know."
"The Office of Independent Review's report makes it clear there was a dysfunctionally wide range of interpretations of SB 39, the law requiring disclosure of child death records for which I voted as a member of the State Senate," he added.
The supervisor said he wanted to find better ways of working with law enforcement so that reports of child-abuse-caused deaths are not kept in the dark.
The report notes that what comprises a child-abuse-related death is up for interpretation under the state's 2008 law, SB 39, which mandates the release of such information. In some cases a direct cause might not have been established between abuse by county-empowered foster parents and a youth's death.
Earlier this month county Ridley-Thomas asked the county counsel for a review of "how the county makes decision on disclosure of child death records ... "
The review, meanwhile, came up with several recommendations including one that states DCFS death reports that mention abuse as a cause should then trigger the public release of documents; and one that asks for the possible establishment of independent oversight of the release of child-abuse-death documents.