Social workers had several opportunities to prevent the beating death of 10-year-old Seth Ireland by his mother’s boyfriend, but they failed to follow up on complaints of abuse or interview key witnesses, according to a Fresno County investigative report that was released Wednesday after a lengthy legal battle.
Months before Seth died in January 2009, neighbors had called police and social workers frequently after they heard Seth and his siblings yelling “stop” inside their southwest Fresno home, but the abuse continued, says the report that’s critical of the county’s Child Protective Services agency.
Seth and his family also had repeated contacts with law enforcement, hospital representatives and school officials – who are legally required to report abuse – but social workers didn’t know about the attacks on Seth until after he was brutally beaten by Lebaron Vaughn.
Once social workers were alerted to the abuse, they failed to interview neighbors, school officials and the reporting parties, the report says. “In addition, there was no check to see if the police had been out to the house or if a cross-report had been completed by the police,” it says.
The most damaging concern, however, was this: The caller’s report of abuse was not entered into a child welfare/case management system in a timely manner. And after the concern was entered into the system, it was modified, which “creates a liability issue,” the report says.
The county launched the investigation after Seth died from severe head trauma and bruising throughout his body on Jan. 6, 2009.
There are no facts concerning the death of the minor Seth Ireland that are listed in the Quality Assurance report which were not known to both parties at the time of the first trial.
Jean M. Rousseau, Fresno County’s chief administrative officer
The investigative findings were finally released Wednesday after county officials reluctantly decided to follow a judge’s order to make the report public with some minor redactions.
Fresno County had until Feb. 9 to file a writ with the state 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno to overturn Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton’s order to make the report public with some redactions. Instead of filing a writ, county officials held a morning news conference, explaining why it took so long to release the 30-page report after several judges had already ruled that it should be made public.
In making comments to the news reporters, County Administrative Officer Jean M. Rousseau criticized The Bee, saying: “It has been unfortunate that over the past few weeks reporters have chosen to publish misleading information concerning the facts of the court proceedings and the nature of the discovery dispute in the (Seth Ireland) case.”
Rousseau also said Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, who represents Seth’s father, Joseph Hudson, in the civil lawsuit, made misleading statements that The Bee reported and that show the newspaper’s “motivation was to produce headlines rather than report on a matter of important public interest.”
Rousseau said the media’s reporting on the Ireland case could lead to Fresno County not getting a fair trial when the court proceedings start in October.
When a reporter asked Rousseau to cite specific examples of inaccurate reporting, he declined, saying: “I’ll let you judge for yourself.”
Bee Executive Editor Jim Boren responded: “The Bee stands by its reporting on this case, and we think that it’s important that Mr. Rousseau could not point out a single example of incorrect or misleading reporting when asked to do so during his news conference. The Bee will always fight for the public’s right to see how its government operates, even when elected officials would rather keep the public in the dark. It’s too bad that Fresno County is more committed to government secrecy than explaining to the public the death of a child under CPS protection.”
Paboojian also bristled at Rousseau’s comments, saying, “The county is in damage-control mode because the report is damaging.”
Rousseau wasn’t being forthright, Paboojian said, because the county’s first redacted copy of the report – which he says violated Hamilton’s order – gutted the critical findings.
Authorities say Seth’s tragic 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. If Paboojian wins his lawsuit, it could open the legal door to more lawsuits when social workers are found at fault.
Police say Seth was hospitalized on Dec. 29, 2008, after being punched and kicked by Vaughn. 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 the public would learn the truth about what happened. But it took a long and difficult legal fight by Paboojian to make it happen.
Though lawyers are required to turn over evidence, Paboojian has said he didn’t even know the investigative report, called a Quality Assurance report, or QA report, existed until he started deposing a CPS supervisor nearly three years after the lawsuit was filed in September 2009.
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 (or $5.5 million in damages); Vaughn was given 25 percent blame; and Seth’s mother was assigned 10 percent. The county, however, appealed the judgment, and in September the 5th District Court 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.
The county is in damage-control mode because the report is damaging.
Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, who represents Seth’s father
The investigation found social workers had a difficult task in determining who was causing the abuse – Rena Ireland, Vaughn or Hudson – because Ireland and Hudson were in a bitter custody battle. The report also says social workers were not contacted by the law enforcement, mental health and hospital officials who dealt with the family.
In 2008, social workers were contacted several times regarding Seth and his siblings. (There were three other children, ages 7, 5, and 2 months, in the home, the report says.) The callers mentioned physical and emotional abuse and neglect of Seth and his siblings by his mother, her boyfriend and Hudson, the report says.
In one incident on Aug. 17, 2008, Rena Ireland accused Hudson of spanking Seth 20 times. The report says Rena Ireland took Seth to the Sheriff’s Office to file a report, but the boy told the deputy that his mother hit him. Rena Ireland was arrested for child abuse “but was released and returned home with Seth that night.”
The next day, Hudson called CPS, but the report says “it is unclear what happened to this call once it was referred to the (department’s) reception. The care line does not have any record of receiving a call on this date. In addition, (the department’s) reception does not maintain a log of all the calls to the department.”
In another incident in October 2008, Seth was admitted to a hospital in Bakersfield after he “complained of hearing voices.”
“Patient feels depressed, but is doing well in school,” the report says. Seth had bruises on his right shoulder and arm but was unable to explain how he got them. The report says social workers were not informed of the hospital visit.
Seth also feared his father, the report says.
Seth also feared his father, the report says.
The boy told a social worker that Hudson spanked him with a belt and often on his bare legs. “Seth reported that his father left marks on his legs that lasted two weeks. Seth also reported that his father and his father’s wife smoke crack,” the report says.
Superior Court records say Hudson has an extensive criminal record.
In March 2013, he was sentenced to three years of probation and to a county work program after he pleaded no contest to drunken driving, resisting arrest and driving without a license.
A month later he was arrested on suspicion of residential burglary. After being released from jail, he was arrested twice for drunken driving – once in November and again in December 2013.
Court records say in January 2015 he pleaded no contest to two drunken driving charges and reckless driving. Judge Don Penner then sentenced Hudson to 16 months in prison. As part of a plea agreement, the April 2013 residential burglary charge was dismissed, the records say.
Hudson currently has a pending misdemeanor charge of brandishing a weapon.
Paboojian said Wednesday there is no evidence Hudson smoked crack cocaine and blamed the county for Hudson’s troubles.
Before Seth was killed, Paboojian said, Hudson “was an outstanding citizen” with a Fresno County job. After Seth died, Hudson lost his job and his life spiraled downward, he said.
“Jurors in the first trial learned about Hudson’s life, and they found he was a good father who loved his son and did not contribute to his son’s death, ” Paboojian said.
“The fact is, he has been emotionally distraught since his son’s death, and the county hopes he will self-destruct so they won’t have to pay a large verdict,” the lawyer said.
In past court appearances, the county’s lawyer, James Weakley, declined to release the CPS report, saying it would have a chilling effect on social workers and others who investigate a child’s death under CPS care. If social workers and county employees knew the public would read their comments, then they would not talk candidly about what happened, he argued.
At a Jan. 14 court hearing, Weakley reluctantly gave Paboojian the entire report without any omissions after Hamilton ordered it. Hamilton also ordered the county to get a sworn declaration from a county employee to authenticate the report given to Paboojian and prepare a copy of the report with some redactions for the public. Only the names of the social workers and county employees linked to Seth’s death would be redacted to protect their safety and privacy, the judge said.
In addition, Hamiliton sanctioned the county $4,500 for failing to turn over the report to Paboojian in a timely manner.
In the most recent court hearing on Jan. 26, Weakley handed in a QA report for the public that omitted the critical findings. After Hamilton read Weakley’s heavily redacted copy, the judge quipped: “I thought I was reading a top secret nuclear document.”
Hamilton then told Weakley that the appellate justices did not say the report had to be redacted. Hamilton said he ordered the redactions to protect the social workers and county employees. After Weakley said he misunderstood the judge’s previous order, Hamilton gave Weakley until Feb. 9 to file a writ if he disagreed with the ruling.
On Wednesday, county officials made public a redacted copy of the report as the judge had ordered. Before doing so, Rousseau took aim at his critics, saying the report at issue “does not represent an effort by the county to hide any information, but was part of the department’s continuing commitment to analyzing and improving its policies, practices and services.
“When a public entity such as the county of Fresno is engaged in any litigation that could result in substantial liability that has to be paid with public funds, the public entity is at a disadvantage in the public relations campaign often waged by the plaintiff’s attorneys,” Rousseau said.
Rousseau also said Paboojian’s “attempt to sensationalize the discovery dispute over a single document … was clearly designed to deflect attention away from the appellate court’s reversal of the judgment and to coerce the county into making an unfavorable settlement.
“There are no facts concerning the death of the minor Seth Ireland that are listed in the Quality Assurance report which were not known to both parties at the time of the first trial,” Rousseau told reporters. “The county of Fresno Department of Social Services remains committed to providing children and families in our community with the protection and services they need.”