June 2011 Archives

PBS's Frontline Exposes Wrongful Convictions For Child Abuse and Shaken Baby Syndrome

June 30, 2011,

In an eye-opening new Frontline segment, The Child Cases, PBS and its partners present a critical look into "child cases" and what goes wrong from a scientific and prosecutorial standpoint when innocent people are convicted of abusing and killing children. This segment tells the story of one man on death row for killing a child who appears to have suffered a bleeding disorder, a woman who sat in jail for over a year before she was found not-guilty of killing her child, and a daycare provider who served a prison sentence before being released on appeal. The narrator interviews medical examiners who work on child death cases, attorneys, as well as family members and witnesses to these cases. This segment is one of several stories about faulty science that leads to the conviction of innocent people for child deaths.

The media is paying keen attention to these cases and are highlighting the problems when government forensic medical examiners evaluate child death cases at autopsy. These examiners are often not board certified. They rarely read medical records for the children. And they often feel aligned with the prosecuting agencies that they submit their information to, to the detriment of objectivity. In addition, child autopsies are as emotional as it gets. The results include mistaken observations, bias against the caretakers, the presumption of abuse, and, ultimately, wrongful convictions. NPR also discusses these issues in Child Cases: Guilty Until Proven Innocent.

As a an attorney who represents parents in child abuse cases in the trial court and on appeal, I am happy to see that these mistakes are coming to light outside of the courtroom. Practitioners know that medical examiners are aligned with prosecuting agencies but courts often look away as a result of the system's design. Bias must be exposed because it taints everything: from beliefs, to impressions, to diagnoses and findings. Science without objectivity is far worse than no science at all. In these cases, scientists are arming prosecutors with lies that only they can disprove.

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Former Foster Youth May Sue L.A. County After Social Worker Stole His Life Savings

June 12, 2011,

According to the Los Angeles Times article, Ex-foster youth may sue county, a Los Angeles county social worker pocketed a foster youth's savings prior to his death. Samuel Sago, 21, was a foster youth who worked part-time at Starbucks in order to save money to live independently after he aged out of the foster care system. He and other foster youth handed over their pay to a social worker who literally stole their money. When Sago asked for his money to find an apartment, he was given $713- - not the $4,664.10 he had given the social worker. The department had no explanation. Only after the social worker died did Sago learn that the social worker had stolen his and other foster youth's money, to the tune of $17,000 and 19 kids.

Supervisor Gloria Molina apologized to Sago and acknowledged that there was fraud in the department. She stated that they were trying to correct the problem and attempted to make Sago whole by paying him the entire amount he had trusted to his social worker.

As an attorney practicing dependency law throughout Southern California, this story is as surprising as it is outrageous. Few people can imagine the depths of corruption to which one social worker might plunge. When trusted with completely unchecked power, with no oversight or consequences for potential wrongdoing, people do incredibly immoral and criminal things. The people working in this system are no different. This is a terrible example of an abuse of a child by the very person trusted to take care of him.

We charge social workers with the incredibly important responsibility- to keep kids safe - and the system relies upon the assumption that children are better off out of their parents' homes than in them. This young man faced abuse and/or neglect that presumably required his removal from his parents. Then he faced financial exploitation at the hands of the one person trusted to help provide him a brighter future.

I can think of no more blatant a breach of trust. When we as a society choose to allow government actors to raise children, in lieu of their biological parents, we assume different risks for these children. First, those charged with caring about kids are not their parents. They may or may not have their interests truly at heart any more than the presumably flawed biological parents did. Second, we have no system in place to check the abuses that happen in the system.

Where are the checks on institutional abusers? Despite claim after claim, foster youth inexplicably fight measures to open the system to provide transparency, like failed AB 73, that I discussed in an early blog. I suspect these sorts of story merely scratch the surface of what has gone on and is going on in this broken system.

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