A judge has tentatively ruled that Fresno County must turn over an investigative report that details why Child Protective Services failed to prevent the death of 10-year-old Seth Ireland, who died in 2009 after he was beaten by his mother’s boyfriend.
Judge Jeffrey Hamilton also sanctioned the county’s lawyers $4,500 for failing to turn over the report to the lawyers representing Seth’s family in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the county.
In addition, Hamilton denied the county’s request to prohibit releasing the report to the public and said it must be turned over without redactions.
Hamilton made his tentative ruling after Fresno lawyers Warren Paboojian and Jason Bell filed a motion that said two courts – Fresno County Superior Court and the 5th District Court of Appeal – have ordered county officials to turn over the Child Welfare Quality Assurance report to Seth’s father, Joseph Hudson, but the county’s lawyers have not done so.
In past court appearances, the county’s lawyers have argued that releasing the report, commonly known as a QA report, would have a chilling effect on social workers and others who investigate a child’s death.
Because it is a tentative ruling, the county’s lawyers will have the opportunity at 3 p.m. Thursday to convince Hamilton to change his mind. If they are unsuccessful, the county must turn over the QA report within 20 days of being served the court order. The county has 30 days to pay the $4,500 in sanctions.
Hamilton said in his tentative ruling Wednesday that “the issue here is simple.”
On Sept. 6, 2012, the trial court granted Hudson’s motion and ordered the county to produce the QA report within 20 days. The county filed for a writ, and on Sept. 30, 2015, the 5th District Court of Appeals in Fresno declined to reverse the order compelling the county to produce the QA report, Hamilton wrote.
Hamilton said the trial court’s order also did not authorize any redactions or require production of the report pursuant to a protective order.
“Furthermore, there is no indication that those issues were raised on appeal,” his ruling said. “If the county believed that it was the trial court’s intent to authorize redactions or require a protective order, it should have requested that Judge M. Bruce Smith clarify the order before seeking the writ. At this point the court considers the Sept. 6, 2012, ruling to be final.”
The County shall comply with that order, as written, which means the report must be produced with no redactions, and without a protective order.
Judge Jeffrey Hamilton
Paboojian said he would comment after Thursday’s hearing. The county also declined comment.
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.
After the boy’s death, Fresno County officials promised that the public would learn the truth about what happened. But Paboojian said that has never happened.
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 for 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.
Superior Court Judge 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 his order, the motion says.
In his ruling, Smith, 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’s lawyer, James Weakley, 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, Ireland, was assigned 10 percent.
The county, however, appealed the judgment, and in September last year, the 5th District Court of Appeal threw out the $8.5 million verdict and ordered a new trial. But in its Sept. 30 decision, the appellate court also ordered the county to release the report to Hudson’s attorneys.
In past court appearances, the county’s lawyers have argued that releasing the report, more commonly known as a QA report, would have a chilling effect on social workers and others who investigate a child’s death.
Authorities say Seth’s death has statewide implications, because child social workers are largely immune from lawsuits that challenge their discretion due to 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.
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.