Climaxing a legal battle that has spanned more than six years, Fresno County finally turned 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.
It took some arm twisting from Judge Jeffrey Hamilton to make it happen.
On Wednesday, Hamilton issued a tentative ruling that said the county must turn over the report without redactions to the lawyers representing Seth’s family in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the county. Hamilton also sanctioned the county $4,500 for failing to hand over the report and denied the county’s request to prohibit releasing it to the public.
Hamilton’s ruling was in response to a motion filed by Fresno lawyers Warren Paboojian and Jason Bell. They said a Fresno County Superior Court judge and the 5th District Court of Appeal had already ordered county officials to turn over the Child Welfare Quality Assurance report to Seth’s father, Joseph Hudson, but the county’s lawyers had failed to do so.
On Thursday, Fresno attorney James Weakley, who represents the county, asked Hamilton to reconsider his ruling, which the judge did – slightly.
Hamilton ordered the county to immediately give an unredacted copy of the report to Paboojian in court Thursday. The judge then ordered the county to make another copy, with names of the social workers and other county employees redacted. Redactions are necessary, Hamilton said, for the privacy and safety of the social workers and county employees linked to Seth’s death.
Once the redactions are done, that copy will be available to the public, Hamilton said.
Afterward, Paboojian, who did not agree to any protective order or redaction, said Hamilton’s ruling was a win for open government.
“There should be transparency in government, but that has not been the case with Fresno County,” said Paboojian. “This is the first step in the right direction for the county.”
After reading the report, Paboojian said: “The county of Fresno ought to be ashamed. It’s shameful.”
It’s time for the county to put the issue of this report behind us and focus our attention on continuing to improve the CPS system for the children of our county.
Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea
In past court appearances, Weakley has declined to release the report, commonly known as a QA report, saying it would have a chilling effect on social workers and others who investigate a child’s death under CPS care. On Thursday, Weakley said Hamilton did “a very good job of working through this issue” to protect county employees.
In receiving the unredacted report, Paboojian cannot reveal its contents to the public, but he can give it to his legal experts, Hamilton said. The judge also said his ruling only applies until the start of trial, which is to begin in October. Once the trial starts, names of the social workers will likely be revealed, the judge said.
Meanwhile, the judge gave Weakley until Jan. 26 to have the redacted copy in the court file for public viewing. He also ordered Weakley to prepare a declaration from county supervisors who will swear that the QA report that was given to Paboojian is authentic.
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.
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 the public would learn the truth about what happened. But Paboojian said that has never happened.
Though lawyers are required to turn over evidence, Paboojian said in court Thursday that he didn’t even know the 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 $5.525 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 to Hudson’s attorneys.
In his ruling, Hamilton said the trial judge, M. Bruce Smith, ordered the county on Sept. 6, 2012, to produce the QA report within 20 days. The county, however, 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 in his ruling.
Hamilton said the trial court’s order also did not authorize any redactions or require production of the report pursuant to a protective order. Smith also 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.
To date, Fresno County has paid Fresno attorney James Weakley $631,837.37 for the first trial and appeal.
Weakley, however, told Hamilton on Thursday that the court record said Smith wanted some redactions of the report and that the judge also implied a protective order was needed.
To date, the county has paid Weakley $631,837.37 for the first trial and appeal, said County Counsel Daniel C. Cederborg.
“But remember Weakley got a $5.5 million judgment against the county reversed,” Cederborg said.
Watching the legal battle unfold Thursday was Hudson and Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea.
Afterward, Hudson told supporters that he will never give up in getting justice for his son.
Perea, the lone member on the Board of Supervisors who wants the report made public, said the county position didn’t make sense since most of the details of the boy’s death were revealed in the first trial.
“Withholding the report made us look like we have something to hide,” Perea said.
Learning that the report will be released to the public, Perea said: “It’s time for the county to put the issue of this report behind us and focus our attention on continuing to improve the CPS system for the children of our county.”