Child Abuse in Sacramento County
Subject of Investigation
Early in its tenure the Grand Jury directed its attention to the functions and operations of various City, County and private agencies charged with the investigation and resolution of child abuse cases involving physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect. Among the social services, the activities of various entities within the County Department of Health and Human Services were considered including Family Preservation and Maintenance, Family Reunification, Children's Protective Services, Emergency Response and Dependent Intake.
Within the law enforcement community, the Jury focused on the operation of the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Bureau of the Sacramento Police Department, the Child Abuse Bureau of the Sheriff's Department, and the District Attorney's Office.
Within the legal system, the Jury looked at the child protection arm of the County Counsel's Office and Child Advocates (court-appointed attorneys).
The Jury further directed its interest to the Sacramento County Multidisciplinary Interview Center and to private nonprofit organizations which become involved in services for abused children.
CPS - Children's Protective Services Volunteer Services
CPC - Child Protective Center at UCD Medical Center
MDIC - Sacramento County Multidisciplinary Interview Center
Juvenile Court - The Juvenile Court of Sacramento County
Family Court - The Family Law Court of Sacramento County
Police Department - The Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Bureau of the Sacramento Police Department
Sheriff's Department - Child Abuse Bureau of the Sacramento Sheriff's Department
Reason for Investigation
The Grand Jury received a number of complaints of alleged sexual child abuse with supporting materials, supplemented several times, joined in by approximately 200 signatories who were affected by the manner in which allegations were disposed of by responsible agencies.
· Commencing with one dissolution proceeding before the Family Court, other complainants joined in the complaint and a number of cases were presented to the Grand Jury. These cases demonstrated a pattern of conduct on the part of local social agencies, law enforcement and the court system which proved to be inimical to the interests of a victimized child
· Based on these concerns, the Grand Jury investigated the following issues:
· Whether the social service, law enforcement, legal and medical establishments operate at such cross purposes and within their own subculture or institutional bias as to jeopardize the protection of abused children
· Whether public and private agencies charged with investigation of child abuse cases, protection of a child and apprehension of the offender, are internally dysfunctional in discharging these duties
· Whether the existing interview process used to learn the facts from a child who has made disclosures of sexual abuse is adequately serving the interests of the child and the interest of justice
· Whether obstructive practices within law enforcement, combined with acquiescence on the part of the prosecutor's office and failure to fulfill the prosecutor's role, are preventing adequate investigation and prosecution of sexual child abuse cases.
· Whether social, law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies deliberately ignore renewed and verified disclosures of sexual child abuse and refuse to reopen investigation and prosecution in the face of fresh allegations, based on a mindset arising from prior allegations
· Whether issues relating to incestual child abuse which arise in the course of marital dissolution are more appropriately dealt with in Juvenile Court than in Family Court Procedures
The Grand Jury reviewed materials submitted by the complainants; the court trial transcript in a custody proceeding before the Family Law Court; literature dealing with the issues raised in sexual child abuse cases and guidelines for evaluation of the child; articles comparing proceedings before the Juvenile Court and the Family Court; and videotapes. The Jury interviewed a representative complainant; representatives of CPS and the MDIC; an operator of a preschool child care center; members of the District Attorney's Office; officers in the child abuse unit in the Police Department and the Sheriff's Department; attorneys who represented parties to dissolution proceedings involving child abuse claims; staff of private child welfare agency; staff of the County Counsel; a law professor who has written extensively in the field of child abuse; and representatives of private agencies dealing with battered women and abused children. The Jury visited the MDIC and the Child Abuse Bureau within the Sheriff's Department.
Initial Report of Abuse and Interview
One case examined by the Jury began with the child's pediatrician referring the mother directly to CPC. The child was hysterical and unable to articulate the cause of hysteria. When the child was returned to CPC at the social worker's suggestion, a physical examination proved inconclusive. The mother was invited to return in the event of further disclosure, but when she did so she was met by skepticism when she persisted in alleging the child had been sexually abused. Failure by the mother to understand the difference between CPC and CPS further exacerbated the situation, creating a perception among investigators that the mother herself was hysterical and perhaps unfit to be the custodial parent-a perception which lingered long after contrary evidence should have refuted it.
In the usual case when the report is received by CPS, the Police Department or the Sheriff's Department, it may be classified an emergency, requiring dispatch of an investigator to interview the child. The impact upon the child depends upon the skill of the investigator and his ability to dispel an appearance of confrontation.
If physical examination appears indicated, the child may be subjected to a Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect (SCAN) examination at UC Davis Medical Center and photographs taken of critical areas, such as the genitalia. In approximately 78% of otherwise substantiated sexual abuse cases, physical evidence is either inconclusive or absent. Other compelling evidence may lead the investigator to conclude that abuse has occurred. Even though his or her vocabulary is limited, the child may effectively communicate that an act of sexual abuse has occurred by simple statement, the child's drawings, or the use of anatomically correct dolls to demonstrate the positioning of bodies.
The investigator's determination to go forward may well depend on the discipline in which he or she was trained. At MDIC, the social worker with CPS tends, by training and inclination, to focus on the physical and emotional state of the child and society's duty to protect him (as will be discussed in the next section). The law enforcement observer concentrates on eliciting information that may convince a jury to convict the offender.
At the conclusion of the MDIC interview, law enforcement may or may not submit a report to the District Attorney's Office. Absent such a referral, prosecution is unlikely. A series of recent cases dealt with by the Police Department -discloses a disturbing pattern of reactions to the MDIC interviews that can be characterized as illogical disbelief or even apathy concluding that the findings are:
· the child has been coached
· the mother is lying
When "experts" have testified in Family Court that the mother is afflicted with "parental alienation syndrome," the consequence is the Police Department may disregard the allegations.
In more than a few cases, this determination on the part of police investigators has taken the form of refusal to refer the case to a prosecutor at the District Attorney's Office even though the Office has concluded that it may be prosecutable. Police officers are not lawyers with the skills required to try a criminal case, whatever their experience in child abuse investigation. They are expected, of course, to exercise discretion in determining which cases are to be referred to the District Attorney. They are not entitled, however, to obstruct prosecution of a case by the imposition of their personal bias. In some cases in which the Police Department has resisted referring child sexual abuse cases, the District Attorney's Office has acquiesced and failed to pursue the case, notwithstanding the strong belief of prosecuting attorneys that the case merited prosecution.
Several of the cases reviewed describe a disturbing paradigm. Disclosures by the child of parental sexual abuse were met sympathetically by CPS. However, they came in the midst of a dissolution proceeding before the Family Court which undertook to determine issues relating to custody. Despite the possibility of immediate risk to the child under the existing custodial arrangement, the cases were carried forward in Family Court. In deference to Family Court proceedings already in progress, CPS's protection of the child, if undertaken, was terminated and Juvenile Court proceedings not pursued. Often, an expert witness testified before the Family Court that the mother exhibited the symptoms of "parental alienation syndrome," a theory without acceptance in the psychology profession and unsupported by empirical study. Testimony proffered by CPS was not admitted, other expert testimony was discounted and custody was taken from the mother and awarded to the father.
In one case, renewed allegations of parental sexual abuse with strong supporting evidence resulted in the commencement of a dependency proceeding by the County Counsel and delivery of the child to the Children's Receiving Home. The Police Department refused to seriously consider the renewed allegations, declined to cooperate in the dependency proceedings and even failed to provide an observer to a follow-up MDIC interview. The Juvenile Court, at a jurisdictional/dispositional hearing, placed the child in the temporary custody of the mother, and suspended visitation between the child and his father, pending outcome of trial in the matter. A great deal of the credit for the progress of this case lies in the tenacious pursuit of the
In sharp contrast to the performance of the Police Department, the Sheriff's Department works cooperatively and effectively with the District Attorney's Office, CPS and private agencies. Spokespersons for the Sheriff's Department speak with high praise of the prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office to whom they refer the cases they investigate. They share the view generally expressed, however, that communication and cooperation among the entities involved in child abuse cases can be painfully difficult. In the absence of centralized, overarching control over the medical, social (CPS and Dependency Intake) and law enforcement entities-and an electronic communication network linking them-cross reporting and sharing of information is, at best, slow. (The problem is magnified when more than one county claims jurisdiction.) CPS properly protects its files from public or media scrutiny. However, CPS' policy of confidentiality handicaps law enforcement and prosecutors. While the investigative reports generated by the Sheriff's Department are made available to CPS, CPS policy allows inspection of its files but not copying by law enforcement without a court order. This prohibition is not statutory-it is Sacramento County policy.
The caseload handled by the Sheriff's Department has increased annually from some 3,000 cases in 1988 to 7,000 cases in 1995 which must be absorbed by thirteen investigators. Cases are given priorities according to their perceived gravity. Presently, cases received exceed the resources to properly handle them, with potentially disastrous consequences to children.
The response by CPS where evidence of child abuse is persuasive contrasts with that of the Police Department, though CPS' response is not without its own shortcomings and the Division of which CPS is a part has internal problems of its own. CPS, Emergency Response, and Volunteer Services are all adjuncts of the Family Preservation and Child Protection Division within the Department of Health and Human Services.
A sexually abused child who has sufficient verbal skills is brought before an interviewer at MDIC. The value of the interview depends on the proficiency of the interviewer. The interviewers are highly trained in social work but at the MDIC they must fulfill a dual role-first, to identify and verify the facts of the abusive event and, second, to elicit the quality of evidence required to prosecute the offender. The interview staff perform the first role better than the second, a function of the emphasis of their training. The interviews take on added importance when new disclosures and new evidence become available, regardless of whether a prior interview proved inconclusive. There is insufficient recognition of this fact.
In substantiated cases, after the MDIC interview, an assessment must be made by CPS as to whether the case should be referred to a social worker in Volunteer Services, or to the County Counsel for a dependency proceeding.
If the case is referred to Volunteer Services, a complex process is begun to assess whether the problems of physical or sexual abuse or neglect of the child are rooted in drug or alcohol abuse, lack of parenting skills, or indigence. The social worker visits the home and observes existing physical conditions. If the problems are properly diagnosed, a program is then designed which may include parenting classes, drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs and similar services. A number of follow up visits are made to the home to supervise compliance with the program.
A recently publicized case illustrates the impact upon the child of improper evaluation and failed supervision. After the case was framed as one of child neglect, CPS continued to treat it as a case of child neglect despite evidence of physical child abuse. Ultimately, the child was viciously beaten by a boyfriend of the mother and was removed to a hospital where he died of multiple skull fractures. The child's body bore evidence of past injuries which proper monitoring by CPS should have disclosed.
One explanation for such failure is case overload. Another is misguided emphasis on trying to unify a totally dysfunctional family. If the parent is unwilling or incapable of carrying out the program, the case should be immediately removed to Juvenile Court. There, the court can exact compliance from the parent through its power to deprive him or her of custody of the child and, in some cases, the AFDC money that the child brings to the family. The Juvenile Court can place the child in foster care. Such a change requires recognition that protection of a child is more important to society than saving the expense of a caring foster home. Barriers to such transition exist within the Family Preservation and Child Protection Division itself and may be attributed to a conviction that family preservation is a panacea.
The final report of the 1994-1995 Grand Jury commented on the Department's shift in emphasis from foster care and adoption of abused children to return of the child to the home. Cases reviewed by the current Jury and cases receiving wide publicity recently demonstrate that such a shift can produce tragic results.
Child & Family Institute conducts a series of programs for families in crisis. The programs include: protective services for the abused child; and outreach programs touching homeless shelters providing a roof over "kids in boxes," treatment of sex offenders who agree to a course of therapy while living outside the home in exchange for delayed entry of judgment. This nonprofit organization operates in the mainstream of community social services alongside CPS and law enforcement with funding derived from a number of sources, including the Victim Witness Program, Office of Criminal Justice Planning, private foundations, court fines and birth certificate fees. Its permanent and contract staff of professional marriage and family psychologists receive referrals from the District Attorney, mandated reporters, law enforcement and calls from the victims. The Institute also receives referrals from local agencies who ask for evaluation of particularly difficult cases.
When the child's mother is within the jurisdiction of the Family Court, any allegations of sexual child abuse and subsequent denials become part of the record in the dissolution proceedings; however, protection of the child may not be the paramount consideration in this setting. In cases brought to the Jury's attention, the Family Court appointed expert witness testified in court that the mother was guilty of "parental alienation syndrome," an alleged group of symptoms in which a hysterical, vindictive mother coaches the child to fabricate acts of sexual abuse by the father.
The collected cases revealed a factual pattern of the child's disclosure to the mother, health care provider, teacher or other person of sexual abuse, and the allegations being revealed in turn to medical, social service or law enforcement authority. This is a difficult disclosure when the victim is two or three years old with a limited vocabulary.
If the mother is misguided at the outset as to where she should turn, she may thereafter be clothed with suspicion that she acted out of hysteria and is unfit to care for the child. Even in cases where the reporting mechanism used is appropriate and the case passes through the system, failure to submit the matter to the appropriate court may result in erroneous findings and continued trauma to the child.
The Family Court is designed as a forum for the resolution of marriage dissolution issues, including the termination of marriages, division of community property, spousal and child support and custody of the children. The Juvenile Court focuses on juvenile offenses and the protection of children. A mother entangled in a divorce may be unaware of this distinction and of the consequences when Family Court is called upon to reach custody decisions in the light of alleged abuse by the father. A number of cases reviewed by the Grand Jury reflect the fact that Family Court is ill-suited to hear issues involving allegations of incest, regardless of its jurisdictional capability to decide custody issues. In Juvenile Court the County Counsel aggressively represents CPS and, in effect, the abused child, in presenting evidence collected by its investigators. On the other hand, Family Court may decline to hear evidence prepared by CPS even when its records have been placed under subpoena.
But the problem reaches broader proportions as chronicled by Judge Leonard P. Edwards in the Santa Clara Law Journal, 24 Santa Clara L.J. 201 (1987) and by the authors of an article in Los Angeles Lawyer, 16 L.A.Law. 30 (1993-1994).
The cases referred to by Judge Edwards "set the scene for a frequently recurring situation in the superior courts of California and many other states: a child abuse allegation made in the context of a family law proceeding." The function of the Family Court is to determine custody when parents cannot agree. The function of the Juvenile Court is to take an active role in protecting children by restricting parental behavior, by removing children from the custody of parents and by proposing a plan for reunification with the parent. By reason of the presumption of parental fitness, Family Court is poorly equipped to protect the child, whereas in Juvenile Court the proceedings focus upon whether the child is to become a dependent child of the court based upon conditions to which the child was subjected. Litigation in Family Court is voluntarily commenced by petition for dissolution of marriage or similar proceeding. In Juvenile Court, CPS initiates the proceeding after an investigation.
Cases involving child abuse may arise in either court, but should normally be heard in Juvenile Court. A recent appellate court decision, In Re Desiree B. (1992) 8 Cal.App.4th 286, held that litigation of custody issues in Family Court does not prevent the Juvenile Court from reconsidering factually identical issues because of the important differences between the purpose and operation of the courts and the state's overriding concern for the protection of minor children.
The value of those highly dedicated professionals who daily must face battered, abused and bewildered children in the deplorable circumstances they are forced to accept is beyond any measure. When such motivation is replaced by indifference, disassociation or adherence to misguided policy, the system fails. Visible scars disappear.
Mental scars resulting from the trauma of sexual abuse may never heal.
The Grand Jury recommends that:
· A group be impaneled composed of those holding the highest office in those agencies jurisdictionally charged with protection of the child. The mission of this panel would be to create a protocol, The agencies represented should include the Department of Health and Human Services, Police Department, Sheriff's Department, and District Attorney's Office
· The protocol developed by the panel should impose upon the affected agencies at least the following requirements:
· That law enforcement refer all files and otherwise fully cooperate with the investigation of all cases which the District Attorney asks to re view and provide all pre-preliminary hearing investigation requested by the District Attorney
· That CPS investigate and, when appropriate, file a petition and seek a dependency adjudication under W&I Code Section 300 in any case arising in Family Court in which allegations of child abuse arise, and the matter is brought within the jurisdiction of CPS
· That CPS investigate and, when appropriate, file a petition and seek a dependency adjudication under W&I Code 300 in cases where the parent(s) do not perform the provisions of a Voluntary Service contract
· That cross-reporting requirements among public social service agencies and law enforcement be clearly defined and expanded to include inspection and copying of CPS files upon request and without court order, periodic updating of files, and current distribution of all updates
· That terms used in evaluation of child abuse cases be given a common and clearly understood meaning among social services, law enforcement and medical disciplines; for example, in one case, "unsubstantiated" was used when findings substantiate the disclosure but are not corroborated by
· That aa permanent multidisciplinary panel be established to monitor compliance with the protocol, to resolve problems as they arise and to plan for the expanding needs of an increasing population
· The private citizen, the attorney, the investigator, the health provider, child advocates, and all others appearing before the Family and Juvenile Courts be afforded clear guidelines enunciated so that they might understand the proper role of each court in child abuse cases, how to seek their assistance and when and how a child abuse matter is to be heard
· The capacity and value of MDIC be expanded by requiring that interviewers possess not only the clinical skills necessary to permit confident decisions for the protection of the child, but also the legal skills to lay an evidentiary foundation for prosecution of the offender. Sufficient staff and facilities should be provided to reduce the need for multiple interviews
· The District Attorney confer with her immediate subordinates and with the Chief of Police to make clear their respective roles in the investigation and prosecution of child molest cases. Investigative personnel within the Police Department should be admonished that the final decision concerning prosecution of child abuse cases must be left to the District Attorney
· An ombudsman's position should be created whose sole concern would be the best interests of the child. The ombudsman should be independent of the Department of Health and Human Services and should have immediate, complete and unfettered access to any files or information in CPS
· Cross-reporting of child abuse cases among the counties, should be examined in the light of our present capacity to communicate electronically
· The Department of Health and Human Services should provide the Grand Jury with access to any CPS file or category of files requested by the Grand Jury, without the need for any court order or special approvals. Copies of files should be provided upon. request of the Grand Jury
The Penal Code requires responses to the recommendations contained in this report be submitted to the Presiding Judge of the Sacramento County Superior and Municipal Courts by September 30, 1996, from:
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors