Leak probe goes public, finally

August 17, 2010 

An investigation of leaks involving the county’s Department of Children and Family Services is diverting attention from the more pressing work of protecting children from the kind of harm that has drawn so much media interest, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Tuesday.

“The obsession with leaks seems to me to exceed the obsession with the child deaths,” Yaroslavsky said. “This seems to be No. 1 on the list—how to plug these leaks.”

Yaroslavsky’s remarks came during a public session in which the supervisors spent more than an hour discussing a motion that, on the surface, seemed fairly straightforward. The motion, which passed 4-1, called on all county departments to assist the Chief Executive Officer’s inquiry into the disclosure of “confidential child welfare information,” an inquiry that CEO William T Fujioka said should be completed by week’s end.

But behind the motion—opposed by Yaroslavsky as a distraction from the real work at hand—were a series of events that raised questions about why the inquiry was launched and whether it was done in compliance with the Brown Act, a state law requiring that official actions be taken in public except in limited circumstances.

The issue of leaks about DCFS cases was raised in a closed session last week in which no explicit mention of the matter had been listed on the meeting’s agenda.

The only reason the issue was placed on this week’s agenda was to “cure” what may have been violations of the Brown Act, County Counsel Andrea Sheridan Ordin acknowledged.

During Tuesday’s lengthy discussion, it was disclosed that CEO Fujioka initiated the investigation last month after embattled DCFS Director Trish Ploehn complained that her staff was being undermined and demoralized by leaks of confidential information that suggested they’ve acted negligently in protecting abused children.

In the closed-door session last week, Fujioka asked the board for authority to examine e-mails of a supervisor staffer suspected of possibly leaking confidential information to the media, Yaroslavsky said. Fujioka, he said, did not have access to a separate e-mail system for board members and their staffs.

In their closed-door session, the supervisors decided that requests for their e-mails—as well as those of their staffs—should be made available to the CEO through the board’s Executive Office to restrict any “rummaging through” Board of Supervisors e-mails. Several times during Tuesday’s public meeting, Yaroslavsky stressed his belief that this same process should be used for future requests for e-mails by the CEO’s office.

Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas were most vocal in their arguments in favor of the motion requiring all departments to cooperate in the DCFS leak probe. They said it was simply a reflection of the legal realities and their board responsibilities. “We have a duty to ensure that these [confidential] documents are preserved and protected,” Molina said.

Yaroslavsky agreed that confidentiality should be respected but questioned the amount of time being consumed on the issue at a time of crisis for DCFS.

“If you have a good lead, by all means pursue it,” Yaroslavsky said. “But you can spend all of your waking hours trying to plug a leak and not addressing the root cause of what the leaks are all about, which is a frustration with the number of children who are dying under our care.

“That’s why I’m not voting for this,” he said of the motion. “I think symbolically, among other things, it sends the wrong message to the public, not to mention to our own organization.”

Fujioka, for his part, took strong exception to the supervisor’s suggestion that the department is not singularly focused on child protection.

“I need to state that is an absolutely incorrect statement,” Fujioka said, noting the “ton of time, effort, commitment and passion” that has gone into trying to stem the tide of child deaths. He defended his investigation, saying the disclosure of confidential information could compromise the department and its work on behalf of troubled families.

Posted 8/17/10

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