Calif. May Take L.A. County To Court

Los Angeles County supervisors are refusing to turn over subpoenaed records involving the deaths of youngsters under supervision by the Department of Children and Family Services. The state auditor, who is also looking at child deaths in Alameda, Fresno and Sacramento, says L.A. county's refusal is a crime. The Legislature ordered an investigation into the L.A. county deaths earlier this year after a Los Angeles Times report found that more than 70 children have died since 2008 of abuse or neglect after coming under the purview of county social workers.

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Later this summer, the State of California is likely to take a Los Angeles County Court. The conflict is over an investigation into the deaths of children in the county's child welfare system. The state auditor has been looking into child welfare agencies in California's larger counties.

And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, only L.A. County has refused to turn over all of its documents.

INA JAFFE: A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Times began documenting the deaths of more than 70 children who were supervised by Los Angeles County. There were children returned to the custody of abusive parents. A child burned it nearly starved to death, and caseworkers who couldn't or wouldn't gather information that could have saved vulnerable kids.

Certainly some kind of investigation seemed in order, and LA County has taken on that task, says Jackie Contreras, acting head of the Department of Children and Family Services.

JACKIE CONTRERAS: Every time a child died, we go through an elaborate process to take a look at what happened. We want to know whether there was anything that we could have done differently to prevent that fatality.

JAFFE: The state auditor wants access to those investigations. But the county has withheld most or all of those documents. Still, Contreras says that they've turned over plenty more.

CONTRERAS: I believe it's over 12,000 pages of documents. We've provided them with interviews with staff and managers. The only thing at issue are these documents that are considered attorney-client privilege.

JAFFE: And any one who's ever seen an episode of "Law and Order" knows that clients have the right to confidential communications with their attorneys.

DANIEL BARER: That is an important part of American jurisprudence.

JAFFE: Says Daniel bearer, the outside counsel for the county.

BARER: And the county, like anybody who was sued, needs to zealously protect his attorney-client privilege.

JAFFE: But Sharon Riley, chief legal counsel for the state auditor, says that the auditor has what's called Stand in the Shoes Authority.

SHARON RILEY: So that means that we could see anything that an officer or an employee of L.A. County can see.

JAFFE: But Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors disagrees, all except for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He says his colleagues are holding back much more material than necessary.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY SUPERVISOR: People are not just skeptical but angry about withholding information that the state auditor has asked for. But instead, the board majority took a position that makes it look like it's hiding something.

JAFFE: So, here is where things stand. Later this summer, the auditor will launch a new investigation focusing exclusively on LA County's child welfare system. And Sharon Riley, the auditor's attorney, says they'll issue a subpoena for all of the county's records.

RILEY: We have authority to go into court and ask for a court order enforcing the subpoena. And we fully intend to do that.

JAFFE: And Los Angeles County will continue to fight it. So LA residents will have to wait some more to find out how the county serves or fails its most vulnerable children.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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