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Yolo County withholds child welfare records related to baby’s death

Tracie Olson, Yolo County public defender, stands with Samantha Green, the mother of 3-week-old Justice Rees, as she is arraigned last week in the child’s death. Green pleaded not guilty to felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and abusing or endangering the health of a child.
Tracie Olson, Yolo County public defender, stands with Samantha Green, the mother of 3-week-old Justice Rees, as she is arraigned last week in the child’s death. Green pleaded not guilty to felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and abusing or endangering the health of a child. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Yolo County officials said Thursday they will not release child welfare records related to Justice Rees, the baby found dead in a slough near Knights Landing last month.

Officials said the criminal investigation into the child’s death precludes officials from releasing specific case records under state law. Justice’s mother, Samantha Lee Green, 23, remains in Yolo County custody in lieu of $250,000 bail on suspicion of causing her child’s death.

She faces a hearing Friday in Yolo Superior Court, where prosecutors plan to bring a murder charge against the Woodland mother instead of the involuntary manslaughter charge to which she pleaded not guilty last week.

County spokeswoman Beth Gabor indicated last week that the Employment and Social Services Department would release its file on Justice Rees within days.

But Yolo County Counsel Phil Pogledich, in a statement, said “child welfare records are confidential under state law and, generally, cannot be released until the completion of a criminal investigation into the circumstances of a child’s death.” He said his office “was sympathetic to the media and the public’s desire for more information” and added that information will be released once the investigation is complete.

Yolo officials would not comment further, citing a gag order in the case against Samantha Green.

But California experts in child welfare law dispute the county’s assertion that the records must be withheld, including the attorneys who co-authored the 2007 legislation requiring release of child welfare records when a child dies from alleged abuse or neglect. Senate Bill 39 governs counties’ disclosure of child death information when abuse and neglect are suspected.

SB 39 “provides for and allows the release of information. Just because this is a criminal investigation doesn’t entitle the county to withhold information,” said Bill Grimm, a senior attorney at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, calling the decision a “knee-jerk response.”

“In many cases, there is a criminal prosecution (when a child dies),” Grimm said. “In what way would a past contact with the family obstruct a present investigation?”

Meantime, Yolo County Employment and Social Services Director Joan Planell said her agency will enlist outside experts in “child welfare training, consultation and evaluation” to review its practices.

“The death of any child is tragic,” Planell said in a statement. “As such, we feel it is prudent to proactively conduct a systems review now to ensure we are continuing to employ the best practices, and to identify any opportunities to strengthen our approach.”

Yolo County’s child welfare services received nearly 2,000 referrals from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, the latest time frame available. About half of those led to an investigation, county officials said.

Yolo officials, citing UC Davis’ Northern California Training Academy, said the majority of cases referred to child welfare services involve substance abuse and that the county’s child welfare services works with Yolo’s Health Services and local health providers to find resources for pregnant women who use drugs.

But they said counties face a high threshold to remove a child from a home. A social worker cannot take a child into protective custody without a warrant under state law unless the child is in imminent danger. To justify a warrant, a judge must find the child’s home environment so unsafe that the child’s health or welfare is in peril, among other criteria.

Justice Rees had methamphetamine in his system when he was born, prompting Child Protective Services workers to open a file on mother and child, said his paternal grandmother, Patricia Rees, in a statement days after the child’s death.

The grandmother said Justice came home with his parents after she and her husband developed a “safety plan” with the parents and child welfare workers after Justice’s birth and Justice’s parents tested drug-free.

Justice’s father, Frank Rees, 29, was arrested last week on suspicion of possessing methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia and ammunition as an ex-felon after sheriff’s deputies searched his house as part of their investigation into the baby’s death. He has since been released on $45,000 bail.

He had previously been committed to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Riverside County, for drug addiction after his 2010 sentencing on theft charges in Yolo County. He completed a treatment program for criminally committed drug addicts and was discharged from the facility in July 2013, according to court records.

Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto had said his department’s investigation of Frank Rees is not connected to the death of Justice Rees or Green’s prosecution. On Thursday, however, Prieto declined to talk about Rees’ case, saying the gag order in Samantha Green’s case also extended to the Woodland man.

Samantha Green’s frantic 911 call from a Knights Landing backyard Feb. 24 launched a search for her missing son. The next day, Feb. 25, searchers found Justice’s dead body near Rough Cut Slough, 20 days after his birth.

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

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