First of two parts
Drug possession, domestic violence, repeatedly driving drunk, assault with a deadly weapon – any one of these charges or convictions could lead child protective services workers to remove children from a home or force a parent into counseling.
But all of those crimes and many others appear in the backgrounds of employees of Sacramento County's Child Protective Services, a Bee investigation has found.
A review of the agency's 969 workers employed as of Oct. 1 found that at least 68 individuals – 7 percent of the work force – have criminal records in Sacramento County alone. The number is likely to be even higher because some names were too common to retrieve all criminal complaints linked to them, and records in other counties were not searched.
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Although the county child protection agency has a policy to perform criminal background checks on prospective employees – and says it is alerted by the state if a current employee is arrested – the ranks at CPS include offenders convicted of such crimes as possession of heroin for sale, theft, embezzlement, spousal abuse, obstructing an officer, prostitution and identity theft.
One county worker who was a receptionist at two CPS offices is a registered sex offender. One social worker has a pending court case over claims that she harassed her neighbors with laser beams and obscene tirades. A family service worker was charged in August with stealing gas from a county pump.
CPS Director Laura Coulthard and her boss at the county, Lynn Frank, declined to be interviewed. But The Bee's examination prompted Coulthard to issue two memos to agency employees in the past month, warning that their names and criminal histories might be published.
Neither she nor other top county officials would discuss their policies for deciding what kind of criminal background would preclude someone from being hired or when and why exceptions are made.
CPS workers are entrusted with Sacramento's most vulnerable residents: abused and neglected children, living in broken families. These workers are charged with passing judgment on parents' fitness. They testify under oath, serving as the eyes and ears of the juvenile court system.
"Just because they don't carry a gun doesn't mean they don't exercise extraordinary power over children and families," said William Grimm, an attorney at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law. "Forcing them to adhere to the highest level of conduct seems legitimate to me."
Some Sacramento CPS employees' arrests date back years, while others are current. Some committed serious crimes while working for the agency but remained on the job for months and even years – sometimes on paid leave.
Among The Bee's findings:
Six CPS family service workers who go into people's homes to help families have been convicted or face charges of drug possession, theft, embezzlement or possession of heroin for sale.
Many of the convictions are for driving under the influence and reckless driving, including 15 workers who have close contact with children and families. Some of their jobs require them to transport children to safe locations, often in the middle of the night. Three CPS social workers have multiple DUI convictions, including one arrested three times between 1999 and 2005.
At least 17 CPS office assistants who handle sensitive case files have faced some of the most serious charges, including spousal abuse, illegal weapons possession, witness tampering, failure to provide for a child, identity theft, grand theft, embezzlement of county resources, welfare fraud, injury to a spouse and obstructing an officer.
Repeated arrests – even for violence – do not appear to be an automatic impediment to CPS employment. One office worker employed since 2001 faces spousal abuse charges in a pending case and has previous arrests for DUI, gambling, spousal abuse and witness tampering, court documents state. A police report taken in that worker's 1993 spousal abuse case states that "he admitted association with the Sacramento Blood Brothers, which is a violent gang."
One worker, who prepares legal documents for children and families in crisis, faced charges between 1994 and 2000 that included two DUIs, assault with a deadly weapon, spousal abuse, theft and check fraud. She was hired in 2000, the same year she faced felony charges of forgery, fraud and methamphetamine possession.
Criminal background checks for public and private employees are increasingly common, raising questions of fairness, privacy and the notion of rehabilitation.
And hundreds of CPS workers stay clean and do their jobs well, propping up fragile families and venturing into the toughest neighborhoods.
But one prominent child advocate believes the arrest histories uncovered by The Bee suggest deeply systemic problems.
"My sense is that this is the result of a leadership vacuum at CPS and a failure to demand accountability among the workers," said Robert Wilson, executive director of Sacramento Child Advocates, whose attorneys represent children in dependency court.
One 36-year-old Sacramento mother, whose two children were removed from her care by CPS, said she is outraged that some agency workers have criminal pasts – yet may be in a position to testify against parents like her.
"I'm very angry," said Desiree McCarthy, whose 6- and 14-year-old kids were taken amid allegations of drug use. McCarthy denies abusing illegal drugs but said she has struggled with prescription painkillers, and the aftereffects of head surgery.
"I think this is a disgrace – an outrage," she said. "The bottom line is, they're hypocrites."
The Bee's study of workers' criminal histories stems from its ongoing investigation of problems at CPS, which began 18 months ago and has sparked a county grand jury investigation and an independent, county-ordered audit.
While investigating the death of a 3-year-old girl who died after being under CPS' watch, The Bee found that the social worker in the case had problems of her own.
That social worker, Alexis Hince, said she believes her brushes with the law were an asset to the agency, helping her relate better to clients.
"I related to my clients in such a way that it is more than book knowledge or resource-related," she said.
Hince was assigned to what became one of the agency's most controversial cases last year, in which 3-year-old Valeeya Brazile was beaten to death after her CPS case was closed.
Valeeya's mother and her mother's boyfriend face charges in the death of the girl, who suffered a series of suspicious injuries before the fatal beating. Court records obtained by The Bee indicate Hince failed to report those injuries to the court or to the girl's court-appointed attorney.
A review of Superior Court files shows Hince's problems began before she was hired by the agency – and continued.
She was charged in 2000 with failing to report all her income and receiving overpayments of $7,509 in food stamps and welfare. She pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and received probation, court records show.
CPS hired Hince in January 2005. A year later, she again was charged with welfare fraud stemming from payments received in 2002 and 2003. She pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors and was ordered to repay $6,368.
In that case, Hince was accused of taking money from Child Action, a program that administers child care subsidies to needy families – and is often recommended by CPS to its struggling families.
In January, a Sacramento judge dismissed the cases.
Hince, 35, said she was never asked about the 2000 case when she was hired and that she didn't have to disclose it because it did not involve a felony conviction.
"The reality is, the department does background checks," she said, "they were aware of my background and I would even go as far as saying my ability to be able to relate to the clients we serve is very important."
Hince said she was never disciplined for her work at CPS, but added that she has been on paid leave since Oct. 2, the day a Bee story about her handling of Valeeya's case appeared. She said she never was told why she was placed on leave, and that her superiors had told her not to talk to The Bee.
"If it's your desire to create change, social workers are not the problem," Hince said. "Your targets should be upper management, the courts, the Board of Supervisors."
Linked to prison drugs
Hince was not the only social worker charged with a crime while employed by the agency.
Deanna Bennett was celebrating her 28th birthday when she drove onto the grounds of Folsom State Prison in April 2006 at about 6 p.m.
An associate warden watching her red BMW saw a plastic grocery bag tossed from the window and later discovered it contained 4 grams of methamphetamine, 30 grams of marijuana, two bags of tobacco and numerous lighters and rolling papers, court documents state.
Prison officials set up a stakeout and watched as two inmates mowing grass scooped up the contraband.
Bennett initially told investigators she ended up at the prison because she got lost after shopping at the Folsom Premium Outlets. She said she didn't know anything about the package, court records say.
Investigators later identified Bennett's passenger as a woman on felony probation for taking narcotics into the Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County. She was married to a Folsom prison inmate and told authorities she had prepared the package for delivery to him.
Bennett was charged with two felonies. In an interview, she denied knowing that her friend planned to throw the contraband onto the prison grounds, but she acknowledged that she pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor in 2007 and got three years of probation.
The social worker remained on the job for more than two years after the incident and, in the midst of management efforts to discipline or fire her, she was commended in writing at least twice for her work.
A Nov. 9, 2007, letter from Director Coulthard congratulated Bennett for "the tremendous contribution you make to children and families every day."
Bennett said she was placed on paid leave last April. County documents cited "poor judgment" and "dishonesty" that show "you cannot be trusted to make decisions or provide credible sworn testimony on behalf of Sacramento County."
She resigned last August but she said she thought it was unfair that she lost her job.
"I personally know other people in my department who have misdemeanor convictions, so I really didn't think they could dismiss me for that," she said. "I know people who had gang affiliations who were working there."
On the job after harassment
Another CPS social worker remains on the job after being convicted in El Dorado County for violating court orders that she stay away from neighbors she had allegedly harassed since 1999 with tirades, laser beams and other abuse.
Cynthia Lee Quinn was accused of harassing one family by "constantly flipping they and their friends off, repeatedly making obscene telephone calls, training a laser pointer or sight from a gun onto victims, videotaping victims, shining lights into the interior of the (victim's) residence" and videotaping them, according to El Dorado Superior Court documents.
Her actions, which allegedly included repeatedly placing nails in one family's driveway, continued despite restraining orders issued by the court, the documents indicate.
Sacramento CPS eventually found itself involved with the El Dorado County case. One family that moved to escape the harassment reported that six months later, Sacramento CPS workers came to their new home investigating an anonymous report that they "were beating their young daughter in the front yard," court documents state.
"It should be noted that Defendant QUINN was at that time and is still, employed by the agency as a Family Maintenance Social Worker," the records state.
Prosecutor Gloria Mas said she believes that Quinn, 49, was responsible for the call to CPS, adding that the social worker had sent angry letters to people using a Sacramento CPS fax machine. Quinn received probation in the original case, but Mas said she filed a petition in court Feb. 27 to revoke it.
Quinn, who could not be reached for comment, contended in court documents that she was the victim of harassment by neighbors who shouted at her and annoyed animals living on her property. She claimed that sheriff's deputies were "rude and belligerent."
Histories alarm colleagues
Some criminal histories uncovered in The Bee's review of hundreds of court files are years old. Most of the older misdemeanors have been purged from county files, while other records show that defendants later returned to court, proved to a judge they had been rehabilitated and had the original charges dismissed.
Even after such dismissals, legal experts say applicants for public jobs or licensure by a state or local agency must reveal past convictions, if asked.
Within the agency, some workers expressed alarm about their co-workers' pasts – and, in one instance, a 23-year-old case expunged in 1997 generated concern.
Until early this year, families arriving at Sacramento's Child Protective Services office on Power Inn Road were greeted in the waiting area by receptionist Sandra Diane Queen, who is registered on the state's Megan's Law Web site as a sex offender with a conviction for lewd and lascivious behavior with a child under 14.
The roomy waiting area often is packed with children, playing on colorful wooden-bead tables while families await classes or meetings.
A CPS employee, who contacted The Bee in January after learning of Queen's background, said her listing on the Megan's Law site became known around the office last year and was particularly upsetting to social workers.
The county's solution was to move Queen to the front reception desk in the administrative offices on East Parkway, which house Coulthard and Lynn Frank, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CPS.
In her new location, the 52-year-old county worker assigned to CPS continued to be among the first people members of the public met.
Court records show that Queen, then known as Sandra Diane Williams, pleaded guilty in Sacramento Superior Court on Sept. 16, 1986, to a felony count involving sexual acts with a child and was sentenced to a year in jail and four years of probation.
She petitioned the court in 1995 to declare the offense a misdemeanor to help her find work and to acknowledge that she had been rehabilitated.
Friends, co-workers and fellow church members wrote letters testifying to her good character, while the District Attorney's Office and probation department opposed the move.
The court approved her motion in June 1997, records indicate. However, she still must register with law enforcement as a convicted sex offender.
Queen, who declined to comment, does not face restrictions on where she can live or on contact with minors.
A CPS spokeswoman acknowledged Queen's employment with the county since December 2007 but pointed out that she is an assistant for the Office of the Director and technically not a CPS employee.
Criminal checks not uniform
Office assistants at CPS are on the county's list of positions subject to criminal history checks. That list includes other obvious positions, such as family service workers and social workers who have daily contact with children.
But the county's policy allows each department discretion in deciding whether a conviction "will affect the applicant's or employee's qualification for the position" – or whether it can "be disregarded on the basis of mitigating circumstances."
Before coming to CPS, office assistant Brian Matthew Foster, 40, worked with a company that contracts with the county to run community service programs for defendants.
Court documents allege that while in that job, Foster took cash payments from defendants, entered a lower amount in the books, then pocketed the difference.
He also offered to complete documents showing defendants had completed community service hours – even if they had not – in exchange for payments, the documents allege.
An investigator's statement filed in court says more than $38,000 was lost in the scam, which ended when Foster called in sick and his replacement discovered the alleged ruse.
Hired at CPS in July 2000 while his case was being investigated, Foster ultimately pleaded no contest to a felony count in 2002 and was sentenced to 120 days in jail.
Contacted by The Bee, Foster denied the allegations and blamed clerical errors rather than criminal intent.
"It was more like it was an error in putting the paperwork in the wrong place," he said.
Foster was ordered to pay more than $18,000 in restitution, documents state. He said he repaid the money and has had no other legal problems.
In 2005, a Sacramento judge agreed Foster had fulfilled the requirements of his sentence and dismissed the case.
Foster said one CPS supervisor indicated the agency was aware of his case, but nothing else was discussed about it.
In placing Foster on informal probation on Dec. 19, 2002, the judge ordered him to obey laws and "see and/or maintain regular and steady employment."
By then, Foster already was working for CPS.