The use of body cameras to record police interaction with the public has been a hot topic since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. last summer. In California, the same discussion is afoot regarding child welfare workers’ investigations.
Last month, Assemblymember Marie Waldron (R) introduced Assembly Bill 336, which would require county child protective services social workers across the state to inform families of their right to take video or audio recordings of their investigation.
The bill follows Orange County and San Diego County news stories of county social workers making serious errors in their investigations of birth parents. A similar bill was introduced last year but was rejected, and critics of this year’s bill feel it is too vague and are concerned that more prevalent video and audio recording will lead to problems for county social workers.
Waldron’s bill was introduced to inform parents of a right they already have, with the additional requirement that the worker give the family a written notice to read and sign. According to a fact sheet provided by Waldron’s office, parents who are unfamiliar with their rights may have problems in their criminal case or dependency hearing.
“Only the social workers prepare a report for the court based on the investigation, including their recommendations, upon which the judge makes a decision. This process deprives parents of an opportunity to present their claims because they are unaware that they have the right to record interactions with social workers,” the fact sheet states.
In 2007, a $4.9 million lawsuit was filed against Orange County for damages caused by two county social workers. According to court papers, one social worker threatened mother Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick to “submit” to her will or she would take her daughters away.
Fogarty-Hardwick also alleged that the social worker coerced her to sign self-incriminating statements by threatening to take her children. An Orange County jury voted 10-2 in Fogarty-Hardwick’s favor. When the county appealed the decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling.
In February, the Swartwood family from San Diego County received $1.1 million four years after county workers wrongfully removed their two children. Letters show the children’s doctor called Child Protective Services after finding bruises he believed the children received at daycare.
The workers neglected to call the doctor, and instead immediately removed the children from their parents.
Last year, Assemblymember Tim Donnelly (R) introduced bill AB 1828, also called Sammy’s Law, after a Sacramento baby who was taken from his home by Sacramento County’s Child Protective Services when his mother asked for a second medical opinion. The bill required all social workers to videotape their own investigations.
After rejecting the 2014 bill, the Assembly Committee on Human Services wrote in their analysis that mandatory recordings would be too burdensome for social workers and that the many limitations of recording devices may produce more unintended consequences than benefits.
Denise Lytle at the legislation division of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services says Los Angeles County “does not have [a] policy.. to support videotaping of interviews.”
Like many bills in their early stages, Lytle says AB 336 is vague.
Similar to police body cameras, Lytle told The Chronicle she is concerned how individuals could manipulate video and audio recordings. The bill says nothing about editing the recordings or how the recordings would be used.
She also wonders how video and audiotaping will affect the already adversarial nature of social worker investigations.
“They add another element to the already tenuous relationship. You’re knocking on somebody’s door and you could take their children. That’s a very uncomfortable position for the parents to be in,” said Lytle.
The bill will be heard in committee on April 28.
Sarah Thomas is a Masters of Social Work and Masters of Public Administration candidate at USC in Los Angeles. She wrote this story as a student in the Media for Policy Change course.