The San Diego Union-Tribune
The social service bureaucracies of San Diego County have a mandate to protect children from abuse. But what happens when the abuses of the system itself threaten both the safety of children and the rights of innocent adults? And what happens when the system resists reform?
In recent years, the San Diego County Grand Jury has produced a number of thorough, detailed reports on what our child-protection system has become: corrupt, incompetent, secretive, and arrogant. The abuses have been going on for a number of years. But the case of Alicia Wade brought the problems to the public's attention and created widespread outrage.
On May 8, 1989 an assailant abducted eight-year-old Alicia from her bedroom and brutally raped her. The child's description of the intruder included clothing, color of hair and eyes, and even a pimple on his chin. She also correctly identified the color of his car. During the subsequent trial, the prosecution objected to Alicia's own description of the attacker as hearsay and, astonishingly, the court sustained the objection.
Child-protection officials knew that Albert Raymond Carder, a convicted child molester, had been assaulting children in the same neighborhood. And yet, in spite of all the evidence, the officials maintained from the beginning that Alicia's father, Navy Chief Petty Officer Jim Wade, had been the attacker.
Like virtually all men in San Diego accused of sexual molestation, Jim Wade was subjected to a penile plethysmography, a test which the San Diego County Grand Jury found profoundly disturbing. Therapists wire the accused's genitals to a machine, then show him erotic material that may include child pornography. The accused is also told to fantasize while his reaction is measured.
The validity and value of the process are matters of fierce debate among experts. The local administrator of the test is Larry Corrigan, a social worker who operates a family counseling business. Corrigan declines to discuss the procedure.
The Wades made two astonishing discoveries. First, contrary to the rest of our justice system, the child-protection system assumes guilt, not innocence. Second, denial is taken as evidence of guilt. Alicia denied that her father had been the attacker, which, said the Grand Jury, was "the only response the system was looking for."
Juvenile Court appointed therapist Kathleen Goodfriend of the La Mesa Village Counseling Group to deal with Alicia. For some 13 months, working without supervision, Goodfriend relentlessly badgered Alicia to accuse her father. The Grand Jury was also alarmed that the therapist taught the eight-year-old Alicia about masturbation "without any parental input or any apparent interest by the child."
Semen left on Alicia's clothing was not examined for almost two years. When it was found, the defense was not told. The test, which requires less than a month, took seven months. After DNA tests on the semen exonerated the father, the District Attorney's office required that the tests be repeated and still prohibited contact between the father and the daughter. Worse, the Grand Jury identified a "race against time to arrange for Alicia's adoption prior to the availability of the DNA results."
County Counsel E. Jane Via had been the prosecuting District Attorney on the Carder case. In that capacity she had used Alicia's description of the attacker and ordered a blood sample from Carder. As the Grand Jury also noted, when Via later handled the Wade case, she denied having done so. Via's declaration about Carder was never placed in Jim Wade's criminal file.
Alicia had been away from her family for over two years and narrowly escaped being adopted away forever. When she was returned to her family, she was using a medication to which she was allergic, she did not have the glasses she wore when she was detained, and there was no record of a vision exam. Legal fees of over $125,000 left the innocent family impoverished. The psychological damages are incalculable and likely permanent.
Further, the Wades' nightmare is not unusual. The Grand Jury discovered similar elements in some 300 cases. One of these involves Neil and Maria B. of Chula Vista, who are seeking damages over bogus charges of sexual abuse. Richard Wexler's "Wounded Innocents" confirms that such problems are national in scope.
The County Grand Jury acknowledged that there were errors and mistakes, but concluded that "the system appears designed to create or foster them, to leave them untested and uncorrected, and ultimately to deny or excuse them, all in the name of child protection."
The system has its defenders, primarily those who benefit financially from it. Child psychiatrist Sheldon Zablow works with the county's Child Protection Services and acknowledges that the horror stories are "tragically more frequent than I fear to contemplate." But according to Zablow, foster programs are underfunded.
Actually, the funding for foster programs is primarily from federal grants and is practically open-ended. Foster parents receive nearly double the amount, per child, that a welfare mother gets.
Foster care, said the Grand Jury, has evolved into a highly developed cottage industry. The jury added that many foster parents were motivated by money and simply "rent their homes to the dependency system." Even good foster parents had been "co-opted by the Department of Social Services." The jury conclueded that between 35 and 70 percent of foster children "never should have been removed from their parental homes."
Zablow also contends that like all county workers local child-protectors are overworked and underpaid. The Juvenile Justice Commission agrees that social workers are underpaid, but adds the obvious moral point that this absolves no one from following acceptable standards of practice. The root problem is not lack of money, but abuse of power. In deed, the Juvenile Justice Commission raised the issue of possible criminal conspiracy among child-protection workers.
In spite of many recommendations for reform by the Grand Jury, the system is currently in denial. When asked last March if any social worker had been dismissed or disciplined over the Wade case, Ivory Johnson of the county's Children's Services Bureau said that it was "something we are looking into." Johnson currently declines to release information about disciplinary actions.
The Jury lamented that the District Attorney and the County Counsel have not responded to date. These two public law offices "have neither accepted any responsibility for the crisis which occurred in the juvenile dependency system nor critically examined existing policies and procedures within their offices."
Even after the court found Jim Wade innocent and the family was reunited, E. Jane Via defended her handling of the case and tendered scenarios of the father's involvement. The Grand Jury suggested that the State Bar investigate Via for "violation of professional ethics."
Incredibly, Juvenile Court is still giving lucrative referrals to Kathleen Goodfriend. When asked if Goodfriend's performance in the Wade case might be grounds for change, Juvenile Court Judge Federico Castro said that the standard for review of therapists was "innocent until proven guilty." That is precisely the presumption that the system denied Jim Wade and many others.
Taxpaying citizens have a right to expect an effective oversight process. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors needs to make sure the dismal performance of recent years is not repeated. That will not be an easy task.
One obstacle to reform is that social workers enjoy unqualified immunity from civil actions. On April 21, the Public Safety Committee of the California Legislature refused to lift or even diminish this immunity.
Apologists of the system warned that lifting the immunity would "have a chilling effect on social workers." That seems to be precisely what is needed to stop the current tide of anti-family zealotry and irresponsibility. Child-abuse is a serious problem, but a system of unchecked power, however noble its announced motives, cannot be allowed to trample the rights of innocent citizens.