Lawyer fires back at Fresno County in Seth Ireland death case

A family photo of Seth Ireland, the 10-year-old boy killed by his mother’s boyfriend in 2009.
A family photo of Seth Ireland, the 10-year-old boy killed by his mother’s boyfriend in 2009. Fresno Bee file

In the latest volley over the death of Seth Ireland nearly eight years ago, the Fresno lawyer representing the boy’s family says county officials are lying and hiding a report that exposed actions by social workers.

Warren Paboojian, who represents the boy’s father, Joseph Hudson, said Thursday that Jean Rousseau, Fresno County’s administrative officer, made false statements last week about a quality assurance report that detailed actions by county social services employees.

After Seth’s death, county officials promised the public would learn the truth about what happened. But it took a complex legal fight for Paboojian to make it happen. Ultimately, the county was sanctioned $4,500 in court for not disclosing the report.

Paboojian has said he didn’t know the investigative report, called a quality assurance report, existed until he started deposing a Child Protective Services supervisor nearly three years after he filed a civil lawsuit against the county in September 2009.

County Counsel Dan Cederborg said Thursday that the county’s lawyer on the case, James Weakley, didn’t know about the report during discovery proceedings.

Cederborg on Thursday described the report as a critical self-assessment of procedures followed by county social workers. It found some areas where the county could make improvements.

“Any reasonable entity wants to make sure this doesn’t happen again, so you get them to take a critical look,” Cederborg said.

He said the omission of the report from pretrial disclosure was not intentional, and the county should have notified Paboojian about the report sooner.

Even without the report, Paboojian was able to prove his case against Child Protective Services. 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); Lebaron Vaughn, convicted of killing Seth, was given 25 percent blame; and Seth’s mother, Rena Ireland, was assigned 10 percent. She also was convicted in the criminal case. The county, however, appealed the judgment, and in September 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 investigative report.

The county of Fresno denied all of the allegations that were in the report and hid the report for three years.

Warren Paboojian, lawyer for Seth Ireland’s father, Joseph Hudson

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. Hudson has a criminal record and didn’t have primary custody. The report also says social workers were not contacted by the law enforcement, mental health and hospital officials who dealt with the family.

Rousseau, who was not available to comment Thursday, said last week there were no details in the report about Seth’s death that weren’t previously known to the county or Paboojian’s side.

But Paboojian said that statement was “false” because he had “no idea of the facts set forth in the quality assurance report.”

And, Paboojian added: “The county of Fresno denied all of the allegations that were in the report and hid the report for three years.”

Paboojian on Thursday also disputed Rousseau’s statement that the county is attempting to settle the case. Paboojian said his letters requesting settlement discussions have gotten no response from the county.

This case is not about this report. It’s about the facts surrounding the death of Seth Ireland. This report doesn’t produce anything new about who was interviewed or any new facts. It’s just a critical self-assessment.

Dan Cederborg, Fresno County counsel

Cederborg said the dispute over the quality assurance report “is getting blown way out of proportion and doesn’t contain a lot of smoking guns as to the county’s liability in this case, which we deny.”

He said the county may consider asking for a change of venue for the appeal because of pretrial publicity.

“We are defending a complex case where emotions run high,” Cederborg said. “It’s a terrible thing that happened to Seth.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin