Its legal avenues to withhold from the public a 2009 report on the death of 10-year-old Seth Ireland all but exhausted, Fresno County finally released a lightly redacted version of its investigation Feb. 3 at a morning news conference.
The report provides a timeline of the dozens of interactions that Seth and other family members had with social workers, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals and school officials during the last five months before he was brutally beaten by his mother’s boyfriend, Lebaron Vaughn, and died eight days later on Jan. 6, 2009.
The report also cites numerous instances where Child Protective Services policies weren’t followed and social workers assigned to the case failed to obtain complete information, make proper evaluations and interview witnesses that could have shed important, perhaps even potentially lifesaving, light on what was really going on in Seth’s home.
Most of all, the report takes you into the challenging, complicated world of social services and paints a picture of how difficult it can be to sort out the truth and make critical decisions affecting a child’s and a family’s future.
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In this specific case, the challenges were even steeper.
Seth was taken to multiple hospitals – including Good Samaritan Hospital in Bakersfield – by Vaughn and his mother for mental health care. The family moved and changed Seth’s school frequently. Seth gave conflicting accounts of who was responsible for bruises and other injuries on his body seen by others months before his death. And Seth and a younger brother were the subjects of a bitter he-said, she-said custody dispute between his mother, Rena Ireland, and his father, Joe Hudson.
Could Seth’s life have been saved?
It would have been if he had been removed from the home and received the long-term mental health help that he clearly needed.
And odds of that happening certainly would have increased had there been better communication among Child Protective Services, the Fresno Police Department, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, hospitals and the Fresno Unified School District.
Red flags were raised all around Seth over the last months of his life – including his mother’s arrest for child abuse on Aug. 17, 2008. But apparently no one had a complete picture of how things were spiraling dangerously out of control. Each agency had its piece of the puzzle and no one had enough information – or possibly the fortitude – to say, hold on a minute, Seth could end up dead if we don’t act now.
Make no mistake: Vaughn murdered Seth and, according to the report, lied about what happened afterward in a failed attempt to save himself from a life prison sentence. And this murder took place in front of his mother, who did little to intervene and received a six-year prison sentence for enabling Vaughn. Together, they are responsible for his death.
But as the county’s report documents, some people who were assigned to look after Seth not only didn’t protect him, they did far less than what was called for by Child Protective Services’ policies and practices.
Seven years later, our hope is that the improvements suggested in this report – especially those about better communication among public agencies – have been implemented and refined.
We hope, too, that each and every Child Protective Services employee goes to work each day realizing that they can be the difference between life and death for at-risk youths in our community. It’s a vital job with huge responsibilities. We ask that they remember Seth every time they take a call, visit a home or additionally investigate what has happened to a child.