There are a lot of questions that many in this community have as to why Baby Justice was not removed from the care of his mother after testing positive for meth in his system at birth. One thing that we have become pretty well-versed on are public access laws, and where the lines are and where the gray areas are.
Child welfare records are confidential under state law and generally exempt from disclosure requirements. This was done, of course, to protect the privacy of minors, however, one of my big concerns has always been that the laws that are designed to protect the rights of the vulnerable also end up protecting public officials from scrutiny.
That is a big problem in the case of Justice Rees. Last week, Yolo County in response to a flood of media requests, sent out a release that stated, “Due to the ongoing investigation concerning the death of Justice Rees however, state law prohibits Yolo County from releasing any specific case records at this time.”
“As we and the community mourn the loss of this child, we are sympathetic to the media and the public’s desire for more information,” said Yolo County Counsel Phil Pogledich. “However, child welfare records are confidential under state law and, generally, cannot be released until the completion of a criminal investigation into the circumstances of a child’s death. We will promptly release all that can be disclosed following the completion of the criminal investigation in this matter.”
In an editorial this morning, the Enterprise, offering little insight into legalities, simply writes, “The community wants to know why these parents were allowed to bring a baby home into an environment of drugs, why this vulnerable child wasn’t protected. Those records should give us some answers.”
There are several problems with this blanket demand by the Enterprise editor. First, it ignores the legal issues that were cited by County Counsel Phil Pogledich. Mr. Pogledich considerably grayed the issue that seems a lot more black and white – child welfare records are confidential. There is now a gag order in this case, although it’s not completely clear how far down the chain that would extend.
At the end of the press release, however, they note, “Per the March 10, 2015 Yolo Superior Court protective order in the criminal case against Samantha Lee Green, Yolo County cannot comment any further beyond this press release at this time.”
That would certainly and understandably tie the hands of Yolo County in divulging more information.
And finally we have the ongoing investigation.
At the same time, tragically, we end up getting more answers in a case like this than in hundreds of other cases that are probably just as concerning.
At some point in the near future, the District Attorney’s office will have to put on enough evidence to demonstrate probable cause that Samantha Green intentionally killed her 20-day-old baby. Will that evidence include assessments from the Yolo County Child Welfare Office? Most likely.
Moreover, now that Judge Rosenberg has rejected the defense’s efforts to plead to the sheet on the original involuntary murder charge, this become a life-sentence case. That doesn’t necessarily preclude the DA cutting a deal, but it might as well for all intents and purposes. This case is almost certainly going to trial and that means that we will get answers one way or another.
The community may want to know and they will likely find out ‒ they just have to wait a little longer.
The key questions that need to be addressed focus with the decision to leave Baby Justice in the custody of his mother. Yolo County has a reputation for being very strict in terms of child welfare. While other agencies in the state can be criticized for leniency, Yolo County has a reputation for being very quick to remove children from their birth parents’ homes and it being very difficult for birth parents to regain custody of their children once they have been removed.
The question is, what happened here that appears to go against that?
The other key question is whether this is now a trend. The Talamantes case also provided some questions about the care that Yolo County took in protecting the needs of children. However, for reasons not especially clear, the press, while it covered that trial and the eventual life sentence for the mother after her conviction, was not nearly as engaged as it has been with regard to Samantha Green.
Nor was the media that willing to follow up on what went wrong in the case of Leslie Pinkston, who was gunned down by William Gardner after he made more than 1000 often threatening calls to her from prison after she complained he was stalking and harassing her.
So the media has been long on scrutiny when the bright lights are on, but rather poor in making sure that meaningful change occurs.
The Vanguard has spoken to several individuals familiar with the child welfare system who are concerned about trends. Already we have seen funding potentially cut for the county’s very good Foster-Adoption program. We saw the need for the county to step up to save the Yolo County Crisis Nursery.
Resources are thin and groups that used to be able to step into the fray to help assist official services are finding that they are more and more resource-starved.
A key question is how those lack of resources will impact the safety and protection of young and vulnerable children.
These are all questions that the media can look at right now, that do not require specifics into the child welfare records of Justice Rees. Those inquiries will certainly suffice until we get further information, both through the preliminary hearing as well as the trial.
—David M. Greenwald reporting