The horror of the system known as Child Protective Services is never far from my mind. But it came to the fore when news reports detailed how the Department of Social Services tried to quietly insert language into a budget bill to protect the “system” at the cost of the children it claims to serve.
I have worked in the Capitol for 27 years. I understand how laws get made and how the system works. But nothing prepared me for what I saw when my grandson, Dustin, a little boy loved by everyone, was found dead.
This journey, from the devastation of learning about the death of my grandson to outrage over the recent effort by the California Department of Social Services to restrict the ability of the public to have access to important information, began in January 1999. I received a phone call one evening and was told my 4-year-old grandson was dead. Police were searching for my son Doug and Dustin’s mother, Kathy. Farmworkers had found Dustin’s body in a shallow grave in a vineyard outside Fresno.
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What followed was nearly two years of pain for our family as the criminal justice system dealt with Dustin’s mother and father. Doug was found guilty of the heinous murder and sentenced to 45 years to life in prison. Kathy was released with time served since she was a witness for the prosecution.
While the arrest and trial were the public side of the journey, the private, agonizing and most frustrating part of the ordeal was dealing with Child Protective Services that let Dustin down so badly.
As I would learn, the system demands confidentiality from the people it serves, while it works furiously to cover its own actions. This may sound like a harsh description of a system tasked with protecting children in our state, but a closer look at Dustin’s case makes this point.
Dustin’s older brother, Dougie, entered the CPS system at the age of 3 months. His parents took him to a hospital emergency room after a “fall.” He had a fractured skull, and hospital staff determined it was caused by one of his parents. This led to months and years of casework that included classes and monthly home visits.
During one of the social worker’s visits, Dougie was found to be badly bruised. His mother told the caseworker that the boy was clumsy and fell. The caseworker’s report reflects her recommendation to mom: “move all sharp edged furniture out of the room.”
I’ve never been able to determine what law allows a caseworker to negotiate the return of a child in exchange for testimony.
Later, neighbors called police about a disturbance. My son Doug was arrested for felony child abuse. Caseworkers removed Dougie and Dustin from the custody of their parents and placed them in foster care with a loving family.
The caseworkers also began, in their parlance, working with Kathy in an attempt to gain her testimony against Doug. They urged her to participate in parenting classes to sharpen her maternal skills.
A caseworker even made an offer that if the mother agreed to testify against the father, “both boys would be returned, otherwise only the youngest, Dustin, would be given back since he wasn’t the object of the abuse.”
Kathy, who married Doug while he was in custody and awaiting trial for the felony abuse of Dougie, made a choice: better to give up one and keep the chance that her husband would return one day.
I’ve never been able to determine what law allows a caseworker to negotiate the return of a child in exchange for testimony. But my son was convicted of felony child abuse, attributed to drug use, and given a five-year sentence in state prison. All this information was known and available to CPS caseworkers at the time of his conviction. Ultimately, he was eligible for parole after serving four years in state prison.
Finally, the mandated evaluations by the Department of Corrections, the terms and conditions of his parole were set, and Doug was released.
At the time, state law precluded his immediate and extended family from knowing the terms and conditions. Even the CPS caseworkers were ineligible to receive the information. So, when he immediately began violating his parole by moving back in with the mother of his children, the cycle of abuse began all over again.
In the aftermath of Dustin’s death, officials responsible desperately tried to keep details hidden. They fought placement of Dustin’s younger brother with anyone in his immediate family. They fought to keep information about how the father was able to return home, and why no red flag was raised when he gained access to her electronic benefit transfer or EBT account.
In the end, I was only able to learn these and other details of the abject failures of the department vested with Dustin’s protection during depositions in a wrongful death action filed on Dustin’s behalf.
Eight years after Dustin’s death and passage of Dustin’s Law giving families vital information about the parole of a child abuser, California’s child protection system continues to lose an unbearable number of children. Between 2008 and 2013, according to state figures, more than 620 children have died while under the “protection” of our state.
My politics are such that I don’t want government to interfere in our affairs. But government must help those who cannot help themselves: children. Our legislators often call for support of a measure if it can save just one child.
As the grandfather of one child and having worked to advance the ability to protect the children of California, I must ask that legislators continue to insist on more information being available for examination, not less. Don’t allow a last-minute “gut and amend” effort by the Department of Social Services that delays or denies the public and the press this important information. Please continue to demand these agencies provide timely access to facts that can protect all children and not just the system that seems unwilling to admit its failures.
Doug Haaland is the former chief consultant to the Assembly Republican Office of Policy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.