San Francisco Chronicle
Persuasive Writing and Commentary
Entry: Why are these children dying?
A three-piece editorial package
Credit: Editorial Writer Caille Millner
Date: December 3, 2006
Pages: E4, E5
On Foster Care Reform
Why are these children dying?
THE STATE OF California cannot say how many foster children die each year, even though a state law that took effect in 2004 requires counties to release the names, dates of birth, and dates of death for these children. The new law is not being followed by all: The Children’s Advocacy Institute, a San Diego-based research and lobbying group that co-sponsored the 2004 law, requested the names for 2005 from all 58 counties. Nearly a year later, they’re still waiting for two counties to respond.
The names that they do have for 2005 — 48 so far — offer more questions than answers. What does it mean, for example, that nine of the deaths were children age 17 or older, five of whom were within six weeks of their 18th birthday? Are 17-year-olds simply more likely to get in car accidents? Suffer drug overdoses? Skateboard without helmets? Or does it mean the fulfillment of our worst fears — that some children, facing the harsh realities of homelessness and desperation when they “age out” of the system at 18, are taking their own lives instead?
“There’s no way to get more information without going to the courts,” said Christina Riehl, staff attorney for the Children’s Advocacy Institute.
There is absolutely no reason why an advocacy group, a newspaper, an elected official, or any other concerned member of the public should have to go to court to find out what happened when a foster youth dies.
But due to California’s baffling policies on disclosure, it’s extraordinarily difficult for the public to learn who in the system is dying and why. Nearly every bill that has come through the Legislature in the past several years has been stonewalled by the County Welfare Directors’ Association.
Take AB1817, a very modest bill sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, three years ago. Concerned about a wave of foster children’s deaths in his district, Maze simply wanted legislators to be allowed to review the case files of deceased children in the system. But he couldn’t get his bill out of the Judiciary Committee.
“They said that, as an elected official, I’d just use these cases as a political forum,” said Maze. “I think it’s just baloney. We need to know if there’s some kind of pattern or trend or lack of oversight in case management, because, until we know that, we won’t know how to fix the problem. But needless to say, I’ve been fought against on this issue tremendously by the welfare directors of this state.”
Maze is not the only one frustrated by the lack of information about child deaths from California’s social-services bureaucracies. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that the state was violating federal law by failing to file reports about the deaths and near-deaths of children due to abuse or neglect. Threatened with the loss of $60 million in child-welfare funds, this summer the state began requiring counties to file these reports. But — and here’s the rub — the Department of Social Services keeps all names confidential, even in the case of foster children.
Imagine — our state’s most vulnerable children, betrayed by a state system that was supposed to protect them — and we have no idea who they are. A look at the questionnaires the state started providing this July offer only haunting glimpses of their fates:
— On July 30, a 15-year-old foster child died after either jumping or being pushed from a moving car in a suspected sexual assault.
— On Aug. 17, a 2-year-old foster child drowned after her foster parents left her alone in a bath tub.
— On Aug. 24, a 16-year-old committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after telling his sibling that he couldn’t take their legal guardian’s abuse anymore.
Confidentiality is important, especially when it comes to protecting the identities of family members and abuse reporters. We understand, as well, that it’s important to protect the names of abused children who suffer near-fatalities but are expected to recover. But there are no good reasons why the full case files — including names, counties and histories — for dead foster children shouldn’t be open to all of us. There can’t be any accountability without transparency.
When we asked Sue Diedrich, assistant general counsel for the state Department of Social Services, why they couldn’t tell us more, she said that the state could risk its federal funding.
That’s simply not true, according to a federal official who tracks the issue.
“Federal law doesn’t require that a state release (those details), but it doesn’t prohibit those disclosures either,” said Susan Orr, associate commissioner of the children’s bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Indeed, there are at least two states, Georgia and South Carolina, which offer up just the sort of connect-the-dots information that an informed public needs — and unlike California, they haven’t had any threats of a funding cut-off.
There is a solution to this, and this year Assembly members Sharon Runner and Karen Bass even tried to offer it. It was AB2938, which required the release of juvenile court records, and county and state files, in the case of a child death pertaining to abuse or neglect. AB2938 should be expanded to include the deaths of foster children, regardless of whether or not they died as a result of abuse or neglect.
Unfortunately, although the governor and Legislature worked together to pass many important pieces of child-welfare legislation this year, AB2938 wasn’t one of them. The county welfare directors’ association voiced its opposition again, and it didn’t go past its first committee.
For some reason, there are still people who seem to believe that if we don’t get the information, we won’t pay attention to the fact that our children are dying.
They’re wrong. It’s time to resurrect — and expand — AB2938. What we don’t know can hurt us. It’s unconscionable to let children pay the price.
Foster Care Reform
These deaths drew news coverage.
But we need to know what happened
whenever a foster youth dies.
When Conrad Morales’ relatives sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in the mountainside town of Randle, Wash., they thought they were providing him with a better life.
After spending his first 11 years in Los Angeles motels with his mother or relatives’ homes in La Puente, the idea was that the boy might benefit from forests, meadows, fresh air, animals — from the concept of an innocent childhood that his parents, both of whom had spent time in jail on drug and assault charges, hadn’t been able to provide for him.
Two years later, the police pulled Conrad’s body out of a trash can.
The suspects in his murder case are the very same aunt and uncle who were supposed to shelter and protect him. The boy — a high-spirited, popular student and avid birdwatcher — told his best friend weeks before his death during the summer of 2005 that he was being sexually abused and beaten. Now that best friend — and the entire town of Randle — is still wondering how they could have failed to miss the warning signs: the filthy house, the erratic school attendance, Conrad’s requests for make-up to cover the bruises on his face and neck.
Months before his death, Conrad began making desperate calls to his older sister, Vanessa Gallardo, in the Los Angeles area. Gallardo, who had already fought unsuccessfully for custody with Los Angeles County Child Protective Services, was perhaps the only one who called social workers and asked that someone check on the boy. She never found out about that check, but the police estimate he was killed weeks before they received a missing person’s report.
Kayla Lorrain Wood
The life of Kayla Lorrain Wood has a made-for-after-school-TV-special quality to it: She was sexually abused, schizophrenic and depressed. She bounced around in Child Protective Services while her mother racked up drug charges. She was suspected of prostitution. And she died a terrible death — this September, the Moreno Valley police discovered her stabbed and abandoned body after firefighters came to put out a fire in a building where transients gathered.
But beneath this tale of woe lies a 16-year-old girl who loved art, music and animals. Tall and thin, she dreamed of becoming a model — an appropriate choice, perhaps, for a young woman who her mother describes as girly, pretty and frilly. In her foster-care placements, she ran away frequently — to find her family.
Eventually, the police found her body instead.
Could anyone have saved her? In 2005, after an evaluation showed that Kayla was suffering from a mental disorder, Child Protective Services recommended that she be committed to a secure psychiatric facility. She ran away from her group home four days later. Though she later returned, no one followed up on the recommendation.
Although Kayla went missing at least 10 times during her two years in the foster-care system, social services admitted to losing contact with her parents. They didn’t know she was missing until she was already dead.
The life and death of Jerry Hulsey shows how difficult it is for social workers to make the right calls when it comes to protecting children — and how important it is that they do.
Jerry’s biological mother and father were habitual drug users. His first brush with the Department of Social Services came at the age of nine months, when his biological mother passed out from a heroin overdose with him in the car. She was charged with child endangerment and ordered into drug treatment, where she met Vicki Lynn Hulsey, Jerry’s future foster mother.
Though his biological mother couldn’t stay out of trouble — she didn’t complete her treatment program and left her son in the care of anyone who would take him — she did notice that Hulsey treated the boy well. So when she went to prison in 1996, she asked that he be left in Hulsey’s care in Monterey.
Hulsey acted quickly to be certified as Jerry’s foster parent, and by the accounts of friends and neighbors, treated him with love. When she petitioned for adoption, social workers weighed that more heavily than Hulsey’s other problems — namely, her background as a child-abuse survivor, her struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and her bipolar disorder. In the end, Hulsey’s past caught up with her — she beat 10-year-old Jerry to death this year. An autopsy showed that he had cocaine in his system and that, at 4 feet 9 inches, he weighed 60 pounds.
Hulsey’s deterioration and Jerry’s tragic death shows how difficult it is to predict what will happen in an adoption. But it also shows how important it is for the public to understand social workers’ choices.
Foster Care Reform
It works in South Carolina
FOR MORE than 10 years, South Carolina has had one of the nation’s strongest policies about public disclosure for the deaths of foster children. South Carolina’s clear and succinct policies stand in stark contrast to California’s confusing and disjointed disclosure system.
“We review all the records and talk about what the agency did or didn’t do in a specific case — was there a failure to make a home visit? Did someone not follow a policy concerning documentation?” said Virginia Williamson, general counsel for South Carolina’s Department of Social Services. “The reports talk about agency activities instead of laying out the family’s dynamics or revealing information about siblings or other relatives.”
A public request yields plenty of information. They sent us a document containing summary information about the circumstances of death for children who died in 2004. The document included not just children who had died of suspected abuse or neglect while in active protection, but also children whose deaths were the result of accidents or natural causes and received no public attention. By listing this last group without names, their privacy is protected — but the public can still do comparisons.
Composed in a simple, clear format, each entry is easy to read and analyze. For example, we learned that in 2004, there were nine child deaths due to abuse and neglect while in active protection, one well-publicized child death due to homicide, and 28 accident- and natural cause-deaths. Of the nine abuse and neglect deaths, one was a foster child — Lakeysha Tharp, a 10-year-old in Richland County, of probable asphyxiation. We learn that the foster mother has been charged with homicide by child abuse, and that the foster mother’s son (unnamed, because he is a minor) has been charged with the murder as well.
It’s all there: the case, the lost child, and what’s being done to ensure that her death was not in vain. And the sky hasn’t fallen in South Carolina as a result of such disclosure. If they’re worried about “privacy,” or “liability” or “politics,” the excuses that certain authorities offer in California, it hasn’t stopped law enforcement from serving or social services from protecting. Nor has it stopped the public from carrying on with their private lives. The only difference is that the public also has the knowledge to ask questions and push for improvement.
“It’s always a delicate balance between being accountable to the public for how we do business, the privacy interests of families, and protecting the state from lawsuits,” said Williamson. “But ultimately we feel that transparency and accountability are important.”
So do we.
About the series
California legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made progress this year by approving a series of measures to upgrade the level of consistency and oversight in the state’s troubled foster-care system — but there is much work to be done.
Today’s editorials were researched and written by editorial writer Caille Millner. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.
To read earlier editorials on this topic, go to SFGate.com
— John Diaz, editorial page editor firstname.lastname@example.org