Tomorrow the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consider a change to the county’s disciplinary review process that they hope will hold county employees who work with vulnerable children to a higher standard.
In the wake of criminal cases facing both social workers from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and employees from the Probation Department, a pair of motions put forward by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl would broaden the scope of investigations conducted during Los Angeles County’s civil service hearing process.
The county’s Civil Service Commission is the body that settles major disciplinary issues between county departments and workers. But some recent cases heard by the commission have seen the panel reach head-scratching results for some employees, especially those who have a record of discipline issues or who have faced criminal investigations.
Last month, four DCFS social workers were ordered to stand trial in the 2012 death of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez. The boy’s mother and boyfriend are awaiting trial on a murder charge, but prosecutors have also charged DCFS employees Kevin Bom, Patricia Clement, Gregory Merritt and Stefanie Rodriguez with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records, saying they missed signs of abuse.
But in April 2015, the county’s Civil Service Commission chose to reinstate supervisor Merritt to his $116,000-a-year job after he had been fired by the county. The panel ruled that even though Merritt had been charged in a criminal case, his performance in the Gabriel Fernandez case should not have been grounds for his termination.
Though the panel’s decision was later overturned and sent back to the commission by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, questions remain about whether lax employee discipline has thwarted efforts to weed out county employees whose actions may endanger the lives of vulnerable children and youth.
“We need to examine the civil service hearing process to ensure transparency, accountability and proper disciplinary review,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in an email sent to the The Chronicle of Social Change. “We will do so in a manner that protects the rights of County employees with an emphasis on enhancing public safety, child welfare and juvenile rehabilitation.”
Ridley-Thomas’ motion would offer hearing officers on the commission more pay and improved training, helping them grasp new methods and standards for the conduct of county workers.
It would also force the panel to grapple with the so-called Brady issue, a result of a 1963 Supreme Court ruling that compels prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence in a criminal case, such as when a law enforcement officer has a record of lying or other actions that would reduce their credibility in court.
While the proposed Brady addition is also aimed at helping Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell fire hundreds of deputies who have lied about significant issues, the supervisors maintain that the new practices are also aimed at creating a higher standard for county employees who work with children, such as probation officers and social workers.
The motion calls for the commission to take into account whether county employees “previously have made false statements, misrepresentations and omissions of material facts in internal investigations” when it considers “discharges, reductions, promotions or reassignments of Los Angeles County employees.” The terms could impact a county policy that has allowed some Probation Department employees to earn promotions despite disciplinary issues that include excessive use of force on children held at juvenile halls and camps in the county.
Supervisor Kuehl said that the county must appropriately balance the rights of county workers — who may be unjustly accused of wrong-doing — with the safety and wellbeing of children whose lives may be at stake.
“It’s going to be complicated for county counsel to come back with a specific bright line between the employees who will be held to this standard and those who won’t, as well as what an internal investigation means,” Kuehl said. “But this is the way we get something started.”
The board will vote on the motion at its meeting on Tuesday.