Lawyers for Seth Ireland have filed a motion to compel Fresno County to turn over a report that details why Child Protective Services failed to prevent the killing of the 10-year-old boy, who died in 2009 after being beaten by his mother’s boyfriend.
In a motion, Fresno lawyers Warren Paboojian and Jason Bell say two courts – Fresno County Superior Court and the 5th District Court of Appeal – have ordered county officials to turn over the investigative report to Seth’s father, Joseph Hudson, but they have not done so.
At 3 p.m. Wednesday, they will ask Superior Court Judge Jeff Hamilton to order the county to turn over the report and sanction the county’s lawyers for failing to do so.
County officials were not immediately available for comment. But in past court appearances, the county’s lawyers have said that releasing the quality assurance report, more commonly known as a QA report, would have a chilling effect on the social workers and others who investigate a child’s death.
Never miss a local story.
Police say Seth was hospitalized on Dec. 29, 2008, after being punched and kicked by Lebaron Vaughn. He died Jan. 6, 2009. Vaughn is serving a prison term of 15 years to life. Seth’s mother, Rena Ireland, was sentenced to six years in prison for enabling Vaughn.
To this date, the county continues to believe that it is above the law
Fresno lawyer Warren Paboojian
After Seth’s death, Fresno County officials promised that the public would learn the truth about what happened. But Paboojian said, “To this date, the county continues to believe that it is above the law and has failed to produce the report as ordered by two courts.”
In the motion, Paboojian and Bell said they were unaware of the QA report until April 2012 – three years after Seth’s death – when a CPS worker mentioned it during her deposition to an upcoming civil trial in connection with Seth’s death. Because the county refused to turn over the report, Paboojian and Bell filed a motion to compel its release.
On Sept. 6, 2012, Superior Court Judge M. Bruce Smith ordered the county to turn over the report to Paboojian before the beginning of a jury trial in 2013, but the county’s lawyers refused to comply with the trial judge’s order, the motion says.
In his ruling, Smith, who is now an appellate judge in Fresno, said “the QA report is not protected from disclosure by the Public Records Act.” In general, Smith found that the public interest served by withholding the document did not clearly outweigh the public interest served by disclosure.
But instead of turning over the report, the county appealed Smith’s ruling to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno.
Even without the report, Paboojian was able to prove his case against CPS. In February 2013, a Fresno County Superior Court civil jury ruled that CPS was partly responsible for Seth’s death because social workers did not properly investigate the boy’s situation.
In awarding $8.5 million in damages, the jury assigned the county 65 percent of the blame for Seth’s killing; Vaughn was given 25 percent blame; and Seth’s mother, Rena Ireland was assigned 10 percent.
The county appealed the judgment, and in September this year, the 5th District Court of Appeal threw out the $8.5 million verdict and ordered a new trial against the county. But in its Sept. 30 decision, the appellate court also ordered the county to release the report to Hudson’s attorneys.
Since then, the county has refused, saying it might challenge the court’s opinion in California’s Supreme Court. But the deadline to challenge has passed, Paboojian said.
Once that deadline passed, Paboojian sent a letter to Fresno attorney James Weakley, who represents the county in the Seth Ireland case. The Nov. 12 letter demanded the production of the QA report.
The following day, Weakley told Paboojian in a letter that the county was entitled to redact portions of the QA report and wanted a protective order to prohibit the release of the report to the public, the motion says.
In response, Paboojian said he would not agree with a protective order, and said he and Bell “will not agree to any further concealment of the quality assurance report.”
Authorities say Seth’s tragic death has statewide implications, because child social workers are largely immune from lawsuits that challenge their discretion because of the complex nature of their work.
The Bee has tried to obtain the report through the Public Records Act, but the county has refused to release it.
“The disclosure of the QA report would inhibit the agency from thoroughly and critically reviewing and deliberating its procedures and policies,” Dean Stuckenschmidt, a deputy county counsel, wrote on Sept. 18 in response to The Bee’s first public records request.
The jury assigned the county 65 percent of the blame for Seth Ireland’s killing; Lebaron Vaughn was given 25 percent blame; and Seth’s mother, Rena Ireland was assigned 10 percent.
In essence, Stuckenschmidt wrote that releasing the report would have a “chilling effect on the candid investigation necessary to effectively address the changes needed to improve the ability to provide child welfare services to the public.”
“Such a result would be contrary to the best interests of the general public,” he said. “Therefore, the public interest in releasing the records requested is, at best, very small. The ability to carry on a candid investigation outweighs the public’s alleged interests in knowing the contents of the QA report.”
And in a Nov. 24 letter to The Bee, County Counsel Daniel Cederborg said the county’s position on the release of the QA report has not changed.
“Now that the appellate case will be remanded to the Superior Court, the Superior Court will decide which portions of the QA report, if any, will be turned over to plaintiffs’ counsel, and there is likely to be a protective order governing the use or disclosure of the report,” Cederborg wrote.
“Once these matters are determined in the trial court, the county may be in a position to reconsider this request. However, in light of the pending litigation, the county asserts that the QA report remains exempt from disclosure” under government and evidence codes, Cederborg wrote.