San Diego: Kindergarten Commissars

Social worker or social menace?


In May 1989, 8-year-old Alicia W. was raped and sodomized. The child said that the rapist had entered through a window of her home, but officials from the San Diego County Department of Social Services disregarded her testimony. Their chief suspect was the girl's father.

The DSS took Alicia from her family on the grounds that the parents were unable to keep her safe. After 13 months of "therapy" at the hands of Kathleen Goodfriend of the La Mesa Village Counseling Group, the child changed her story and identified her father as the attacker. Alicia was days away from being adopted when DNA tests on semen left on the child's clothing proved that Jim W., the father, could not have been the attacker.

Albert Raymond Carder, a convicted child molester, was among the 5 percent of the population whose DNA profile matched that of the semen. The officials who removed the child from the family knew from the beginning that Carder had been operating in the same neighborhood. Indeed, five days after the attack on Alicia, Carder had abducted another child through a window. The officials ignored the evidence.

Two and a half years after the attack, the state dropped charges against Jim W. They returned Alicia to her rightful home with a medication to which she is allergic, without the glasses she wore when they took her, and with no record of an optical check-up.

A grand jury investigating the county's child-welfare system found that the family's out-of-pocket costs before being billed for foster care were $260,000—not the kind of expense an enlisted man living in Naval housing can sustain. Jim and his family went deeply into debt to get Alicia back. This was a case, said the grand-jury report, Families in Crisis, that "never should have been in the juvenile system."

Evidence from both private and government sources makes a strong case that Jim's ordeal is far from unusual. In San Diego alone, the grand jury analyzed 300 complaints with similar elements.

In his book Wounded Innocents, Richard Wexler convincingly demonstrates that some 1 million Americans are falsely accused of child abuse each year. He further shows that child-abuse statistics are based on reported cases, 60 percent of which turn out to be unfounded. This information suggests that San Diego's problem is typical of the "war against child abuse" nationwide.

The child-abuse system operates under its own legal code. The phrase "in the best interests of a child" is the incantation that bureaucrats use to make the presumption of innocence disappear. "The burden of proof," said the San Diego grand jury, "contrary to every other area of our judicial system, is on the alleged perpetrator to prove his innocence."

Social workers tend to approach every case with an assumption that abuse took place and then look for evidence to support it. In the absence of anatomical evidence, medical personnel offer the not-inconsistent-with-abuse diagnosis, roughly equivalent to arresting suspects because their behavior is "not inconsistent with crime."

For example, when three children she was investigating denied being abused, psychologist Jean Campbell ruled that they were "in denial" and recommended that they be isolated from everyone in their family for six months so they could "disclose" the truth. But it was the psychologist, not the kids, who suffered from denial. The San Diego Union reported that the original accusation came from a relative with a history of mental illness.

"In too many cases," the grand jury concluded, "Child Protection Services cannot distinguish real abuse from fabrication, abuse from neglect, and neglect from poverty or cultural differences."

Families in Crisis found that social workers have "nearly unlimited power" and were practicing "police work" rather than their craft.

The grand jury also found that "some police officers abdicate their role as fact finders to the social worker" and that "detectives will integrate elements of the social worker's investigation into their own reports, instead of performing an independent investigation."

Social workers wield great clout throughout the system, farming out lucrative referrals to therapists and placing children with foster parents. The grand jury found evidence that social workers use their clout to exclude those psychologists or foster parents who question the DSS's findings. In fact, the grand jury discovered, "for many of these foster parents this is a livelihood and foster parenting has become another part of the child abuse industry."

Through Social Security the federal government pays much of the cost of placing children in foster homes. The competition for this money is fierce. One social worker attempted to place the seized child of Gavin O'Hara in the home of the social worker's sister and brother-in-law, who were not licensed as foster parents. O'Hara's attorney described the case as "government sanctioned child stealing." The grand jury acknowledged a "widely held perception that DSS is in the 'baby brokering business.'"

The public has remained ignorant of these facts because juvenile-court proceedings are largely conducted in secret. Former court referee William Burns told the San Diego Union that "people who are behind closed doors can do any damn thing they want and, in Juvenile Court, they do."

The grand jury found that court referees are dependent for their continued appointment on the goodwill of DSS and for that reason are hesitant to go against the recommendations of DSS. The entire juvenile system, said the jury's report, is characterized by "confidential files, closed courts, gag orders, and statutory immunity" and has "isolated itself to a degree unprecedented in our system of jurisprudence."

Court-intervention officers "don't know the difference between opinion and evidence," the jury concluded. Evidence contrary to the DSS position is either excluded or ignored, and more than 98 percent of their petitions are granted.

Social workers, the report continued, "lie routinely, even when under oath in court," and there were "numerous instances" in which social workers disobeyed court orders. When parents and therapists complained, the DSS offered little or no response, and there were many cases in which "social workers have been allowed to retaliate" by threatening siblings with new actions and forbidding visitations. The jury concluded that the department was incapable of policing its own and that DSS problems "have become more deeply entrenched."

In response, the department told the jury that criticism was "inappropriate" and asked them not to listen to "fringe groups," likely a reference to private advocacy organizations such as VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws). The DSS further charged that press accounts of its misconduct were distortions. But the grand jury, which examined mountains of evidence and took testimony from 250 witnesses, found that news reports on the DSS were indeed accurate.

As for Jim W., he has filed suit against the county, trying to get compensation for the expenses he incurred clearing his name. Nothing will ever compensate his family for the emotional agony they were put through.

And though he has been exonerated and they have been proved wrong, not a single judge, social worker, or therapist has apologized to Jim W. for ruining his family's life. Social worker Diane Anderson, who needlessly yanked Alicia W. from her home, is still on the job. And none of the San Diego social workers involved in misconduct has been dismissed or disciplined.

On April 21, the Public Safety Committee of the California Assembly rejected a measure that would have lifted child-protection workers' unqualified immunity from prosecution. Opponents of the legislation, which was prompted by the Alicia W. case, had said the bill would have a "chilling effect on social workers."

K.L. Billingsley covers California for The Spectator.