The lawyer representing the family of Seth Ireland in a wrongful-death lawsuit said Tuesday that Fresno County is doing a disservice by not making public an investigative report that details why Child Protective Services failed to prevent the 2009 killing of the 10-year-old boy by his mother’s boyfriend.
Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian made his comments after a lawyer for Fresno County gave Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton a redacted copy of the report that gutted the critical findings.
The county’s redacted copy caught Hamilton off guard. That’s because in a hearing on Jan. 14, Hamilton had ordered Fresno attorney James Weakley to redact only the names of the social workers and other county employees.
After Hamilton read Weakley’s heavily redacted copy, the judge quipped: “I thought I was reading a top secret nuclear document.”
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I thought I was reading a top secret nuclear document.
Judge Jeffrey Hamilton
Anticipating Weakley would not abide by the judge’s order, Paboojian also turned in a redacted copy of the report. His copy omitted only the names of the social workers and county employees.
“In my opinion, this is what was discussed,” the judge said of Paboojian’s copy.
Hamilton then ruled that Paboojian’s redacted copy would be made public. But the judge also told Weakley if he didn’t like his ruling, he could file a writ with the 5th District Court of Appeal. If Weakley doesn’t file the writ by Feb. 9, or if the appellate court refuses to hear it, then Paboojian’s redacted copy will be made public Feb. 10, the judge said.
After the hearing, Paboojian said he would be surprised if the 5th District Court of Appeal hears another writ by the county since the appellate justices already have ruled that the report should be made public.
“The county needs to realize that the public has a right to know what happened to Seth,” Paboojian said. “This way there can be a public dialogue so it doesn’t happen to another child.”
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, who was her boyfriend.
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.
In past court appearances, the county’s lawyer has declined to release the report, saying it would have a chilling effect on social workers and others who investigate a child’s death under CPS care.
Though lawyers are required to turn over evidence, Paboojian said he didn’t even know the investigative report, called a 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.
In past court appearances, Weakley has declined to release the 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 the Jan. 14 hearing, the county reluctantly gave Paboojian the entire report without any omissions after Hamilton ordered them to do so. Hamilton also ordered the county to get a sworn declaration from a county employee to authenticate the report given to Paboojian.
On Tuesday, Paboojian informed Hamilton that the county gave him the sworn declaration. But the county has yet to turn over interviews, notes and memos that were used to write the report, he said. Paboojian said he hopes to get that additional evidence before the trial starts in October.
Hamilton said the appellate justices did not say to redact the report. But Hamilton said he ordered it redacted to protect the privacy and safety of the social workers and county employees linked to Seth’s death.