In April 2013, police officers and a social worker from Sacramento County's Child Protective Services entered the home of Anna and Alex Nikolayev and took their baby, Sammy, away from them. They had no warrant.
"What they'd done was, basically, kidnapped our child with the help of police," says Alex Nikolayev. The young, first-time parents were not notified of where Sammy was being taken and wouldn't find out for a full 24 hours. According to the Nikolayevs, the dispute stemmed from the parents' desire to obtain a second medical opinion before subjecting Sammy to major heart surgery.
The Nikolayev's story made national headlines thanks to footage from a camcorder Anna Nikolayev set up on the kitchen table. It also caught the attention of California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who spearheaded an audit of the agency.
"The secrecy by which CPS operates is a massive problem," says Donnelly. "Because when you have secrecy and unchecked power, you have a recipe for corruption and abuse."
The secrecy surrounding CPS stems from the nature of California's juvenile dependency courts which only allow limited press access and seal all court records. While media and other interested parties can petition the court to open the records, this can be a lengthy process and by no means guarantees results. ReasonTV petitioned the court to open the records in the Nikolayev's case and, almost two months later, we have still not received a ruling from the judge.
While the closed nature of juvenile dependency courts is intended to protect the privacy of minors, the effect is an opaque system in which social workers present evidence to judges under the cloak of "confidentiality." Only in extreme or unusual cases - such as when parents release clandestine footage of their child being forcefully removed from their home without a warrant - do CPS stories tend to capture the public's attention.
Another example of a case that garnered some media attention is that of Deanna Hardwick, a mother who lost custody of her children for six and a half years. She successfully fought back and sued Orange County CPS after jurors found that social workers "lied, falsified evidence, and suppressed exculpatory evidence" and "did so with malice." Orange County ended up paying out almost $11 million in damages.
"The system is set up in a way that it's encouraged to remove the children from the protective parent," says Hardwick. "Because it generates a lot of funding."
The issue of funding is one that many critics of CPS are quick to raise, most prominently and frequently by the late Georgia state senator Nancy Schaefer. While the funding incentives for any government agency can be complicated and seemingly impossible to divine, Orange County Social Services Agency Director Michael Riley, who oversees Orange County CPS, testified in a deposition related to Hardwick's case that putting more children into the foster system theoretically could boost the agency's budget.
"Let's say you spend ten dollars a year. So, then, for the following year, your base then would be ten dollars," says Riley. The lawyer questioning Riley then points out that failure to use the entire base would result in a lowering of the base for the next year. He then asks Riley if the funding stream is tied to how many children they bring into Orange County's children's home, Orangewood.
"It's tied to the number of children we have in the foster system," says Riley.
ReasonTV reached out to both Sacramento County and Orange County Social Services Agencies in the production of this story, and representatives from both organization were happy to talk with us. However, because of the closed dependency courts, neither representative would comment on the details of specific cases. The absurdity of this charade reached such heights that Sherri Heller, who runs Sacramento County's Health and Human Services, told us that she could not even confirm nor deny that Sacramento County CPS was even involved in the Nikolayev case, despite widespread reporting and video evidence that it was.
And it's not just parents and children who suffer from the secrecy. CPS workers and their managers say they are not happy about the situation either and feel that more openness and transparency would help them to communicate their side of the story clearly.
"Most of us in this field are eager for the public to understand what happened and why," says Heller. "It is a source of great dismay to us when we are accused of hiding behind the confidentiality law."
In the immediate wake of the Nikolayev case, parents gathered in Sacramento to support the audit and testify in front of the audit committee. The audit is set to proceed in the next few months, and the auditor will choose three county agencies to examine. But for parents like Deanna Hardwick, who's experienced the power of this agency first-hand, a state-level audit is just the beginning of a broader movement towards transparency and accountability.