Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Blog note: this opinion piece references grand jury reports on the subject.
East of Clayton and Antioch lies a broad swath of what used to be Contra Costa County farmland. The California senator representing this area, Sen. Steve Glazer, seems to be ignoring the public safety needs of the people who now live there.
While East County used to contain just 8,000 residents and the largest irrigated orchard west of the Mississippi, the 249-square-mile area now contains the cities of Brentwood (2016 population: 60,532) and Oakley (population 40,622), along with the unincorporated communities of Bethel Island, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, and Morgan Territory.
All combined East County has a rapidly growing population of more than 115,000 Californians.
A 2016 report by the Contra Costa County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) stated that emergency medical and fire services provided by the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) were funded at a rate of $94 per person. The report also said that these same services were funded at the rate of $449 and $370 per person in central parts of the county.
This low funding level has forced ECCFPD to close five of the eight fire stations operational in 2010, and drastically reduce staff. Response times are at levels that far exceed any industry standards or goals.
Yet, in East Contra Costa, have steadily deteriorated and the population and development grew. In 2016 ECCFPD recognized the funding crisis, called a “public safety emergency” by another elected official, and passed a resolution pleading for help from Senator Glazer and others in the legislature. You can view Resolution No. 2016-21 on the ECCFPD website.
The crisis was also the subject of reports by the Contra Costa County Grand Jury and a government task force, and it was noted by industry consultants as well as the media. Concerned residents have erected a billboard along Vasco Road, a major arterial route into East County, drawing attention to the crisis.
“The District lacks sufficient funds to provide fire and emergency response to the communities it was created to serve,” said a three- page letter the ECCFPD Board sent to Sen. Glazer in 2016, signed by then Board President Joel Bryant.
So far, Sen. Glazer has done little or nothing to address this issue.
A review of bills authored or co-authored by Sen. Glazer shows a wide range of subjects. He’s sponsored ten “Awareness” month/week/day bills, several bills to ban smoking on public beaches and in parks, and one bill to change the names of California places because the names commemorate Civil War-era figures.
But he’s authored or co-authored no bills to improve the public safety of his ECCFPD constituents.
The Courage Campaign is a group of mostly online organizations that advocate for progressive causes in California. Representing an estimated 1.4 million members, the Courage Campaign uses digital tools with grassroots community organizers and targeted messaging.
The group focuses on the areas of Economic Justice, Human Rights and Corporate and Political Accountability. It annually ranks California Senators and Assembly Members, and for 2017 Courage Campaign gives Senator Glazer a letter grade of “F,” along with a numeric score of 32 out of 100.
The “Courage Score” as it is called, grades California legislators on political courage, how well they stand up for their constituents. While 16 percent of the all California Senators received an “A” grade, 40 percent received an “F” grade in 2017, including Sen. Glazer.
According to the California Senate website, each Senator represents 931,349 Californians. So the residents of the ECCFPD service area represent only about one-eighth (12.35 percent ) of Sen. Glazer’s district.
It is clear that Sen. Glazer is not acting to address or improve the public safety emergency involving his constituents of the ECCFPD service area.
February 18, 2018
East Bay Times
By Bryan Scott, co-chair of East County Voters for Equal Protection
Sunday, February 18, 2018
A candidate for Riverside County sheriff is calling for a civil grand jury probe after a report that at least 25 sheriff’s employees trying to be promoted to investigator cheated on an exam.
In a news release issued Thursday, Feb. 15, Dave Brown said the District Attorney’s Office should review what effect any cheating might have had on criminal convictions in cases involving implicated employees. County counsel also should reaffirm whistleblower protections for deputies and other county employees, said Brown, a former Hemet police chief.
In an emailed response, Sniff called Brown’s news release “more grandstanding and political nonsense by a desperate candidate with a failing campaign trying to gain traction, that really needs to answer for his own scandals and mismanagement as alleged by the recently published claims by one of his former officers involving evidence destruction, rampant officer misconduct, and racism under his own watch as Hemet police chief.”
Sniff was referring to a complaint filed by a former Hemet police officer who alleges officers abused a prisoner, destroyed evidence and used slurs based on race, gender, sexual orientation and physical and mental disabilities. The officer alleged he was forced to resign because of the “illegal activities.”
Sniff continued that Brown’s statement “displays profound inexperience” for voicing “opinions about facts he knows absolutely nothing about.”
“Perhaps the grand jury should look into (Brown’s) prior police agency’s conduct as the grand jury has already reviewed this very issue,” he added.
Brown accused Sniff of trying to deflect from the cheating scandal “by making false claims and allegations,” and defended the Hemet Police Department and his reputation as chief.
“I have simply called for an independent review and protection for sheriff’s employees,” he said. “The public has a right to know if deputies cheated and then got promoted anyway. And if they did, does that compromise the integrity of criminal investigations and convictions? This is a big deal. If there’s nothing to hide, the sheriff should welcome an independent review.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Chad Bianco, the other candidate challenging Sniff in the June 5 election, declined to comment.
Widespread cheating alleged
Brown’s call for a grand jury probe followed revelations — first reported by the Desert Sun newspaper and not disputed by the Sheriff’s Department in a statement to The Press-Enterprise — that sheriff’s personnel cheated on a 2015 investigator exam.
Test questions and answers were widely shared via emails, phone calls, text messages and discreet conversations, according to the report; some deputies said the practice had been so common for years that they didn’t realize it wasn’t allowed.
An internal investigation found that 25 employees tried to cheat, the newspaper reported, citing audio recordings of interviews by internal affairs investigators and agency documents.
Though the test was voided and more than 200 employees had to re-take part of it, no one appears to have been fired as a result of the scandal, and four people who were accused of or admitted to cheating were still promoted to investigator following the 2017 exam, the Desert Sun reported.
“Beyond the scandal itself exist allegations of a cover-up and the eventual promotion of involved deputies with close ties to the Sniff administration,” Brown said. “Even potentially more (disturbing) is evidence of an ongoing culture of intimidation intended to keep the facts from reaching the public.”
Sheriff’s officials did not directly answer questions about how many people were disciplined, what steps the department has taken to prevent further cheating and at what point Sniff learned about the incident.
“This matter was fully investigated and closed back in 2015 with appropriate discipline imposed where supported by sufficient legal evidence,” Sgt. Chris Willison, a sheriff’s spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement. “No charges of dishonesty were sustained or supported by the evidence.”
He said the department “implemented appropriate safeguards” to prevent a recurrence, but declined to provide specifics to minimize the risk of them being breached again.
The department added it “remains confident that only the most qualified individuals will be placed in positions where the law enforcement needs of the residents of Riverside County will be met.”
DA reviewing the issue
The statement also did not address a question about whether the department was concerned that the scandal could cause investigators’ honesty and integrity to be questioned in court.
Regarding Brown’s request for the District Attorney’s Office to get involved, DA’s spokesman John Hall said: “As soon as we became aware of the report, we began to review this matter pursuant to our internal office protocol.
“The District Attorney’s Office takes its ethical obligations seriously and we will continue to monitor this. Since these types of matters are confidential, we are precluded from commenting on any specifics.”
The revelations come as Sniff, who has been sheriff since 2007, faces two well-financed challengers in his bid for another four-year term leading a department with more than 3,000 employees that’s responsible for jails, court security and law enforcement for most the county’s 2.3 million residents.
Brown has the backing of supervisors John Tavaglione and Chuck Washington. In recent Board of Supervisors meetings, Tavaglione has chastised Sniff for not doing more to help the county solve chronic budget shortfalls.
Bianco, who lost to Sniff in 2014, has the support of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the union representing deputies.
February 15, 2018
By Jeff Horseman
The Kern County grand jury thinks Kern Transit, the countywide bus and van service, needs to do a better job of selling itself to the public.
Kern Transit serves 27 communities in unincorporated Kern County with 16 fixed bus routes that link many of the most remote places in its 8,163 square miles to Bakersfield and the Metrolink in Los Angeles County.
The Kern County grand jury gathered biographical data on the service, which also runs the Dial-A-Ride call-in service.
The grand jury’s Administration, Audit and County Services Committee suggested in a report released Thursday that the public doesn’t know enough about the various routes available to link them to other parts of the county.
Committee members recommended a public service announcement campaign to help augment the service’s ridership.
The service provides transportation for special events as well.
Kern Transit’s Facebook page is currently touting its connections to the Kern River Valley for riders heading to the Whiskey Flats Days celebration along the upper Kern.
Grand jurors also recommended that Kern Transit develop an east county transportation hub in Mojave to facilitate transportation through the area.
As a sidebar to the grand Jury recommendations on Kern Transit, committee members also urged Kern County Public Works Director Craig Pope to continue to apply for grants to help expand the network of bicycle lanes and pathways in and around the Bakersfield.
Over the past 10 years, the grand jury wrote, the county has spent $46.4 million on pedestrian and bike paths in the county but more are needed.
February 15, 2018
The Bakersfield Californian
[Santa Clara County] Budget Cuts to Courts Now Affecting Criminal Cases; Creating Backlogs Similar to Civil Case Calendars
Blog note: this article references a 2017 Santa Clara County Grand Jury report.
An NBC Bay Area analysis of state court disposition data shows thousands of felony criminal cases have been delayed for years, and sometimes even decades, in jurisdictions around California.
The analysis shows Santa Clara County Superior Court and San Francisco County Superior Court have some of the largest criminal court backlogs and the lowest percentage of felony cases resolved within a year in the state.
The same data, sent by county Superior Court administrators to California’s Judicial Council, shows in both 2015 and 2016, Santa Clara County ranked last in the state in the percentage of cases disposed of within 12 months.
A memo released in late 2017 by the Santa Clara County Superior Court disputes that data, claiming the numbers were flawed and inaccurate.
The memo came in response to a civil grand jury report that cited the Judicial Council data and blamed the low resolution rate on “a culture of complacency that tolerates delay.”
The civil grand jury report, which was released in June 2017, looked at the Judicial Council’s 2015 report and showed nearly all of cases resolved that year— 47 percent — were settled without a trial, meaning there was a guilty or no contest plea or the charges were dropped. The data released by the Judicial Council a year later showed the processing time for criminal cases actually fell to 45 percent.
The Santa Clara County Superior Court memo says the felony resolution rate is actually closer to 85 percent for that same time frame.
The memo attributes the discrepancy to a miscalculation. It says the report relied on data that only includes “held to answer” cases or those cases where a defendant is kept in custody to answer charges. The court memo says the 85 percent figure includes all of the remaining felony cases in the county.
The memo shows the disposition rate for 2016-2017 dropped to 80 percent.
The adjusted rate still falls below the state average, which in both years, according to the state Judicial Council, is 88 percent. No matter how you calculate the Santa Clara County Superior Court rate, it still falls below similar processing time rates in other counties like San Mateo County, where the 2016 rate was 89 percent, and Sacramento County, where the rate that year was 98 percent.
Judge David De Alba, who is presiding judge at Sacramento County Superior Court, attributes his county’s high disposition rate to a culture of “cooperativeness” amongst the various justice stakeholders in the county. He also credits the county’s use of home courts.
“Many of the criminal filings both felony and misdemeanor cases are filed in what we call home courts, and they stay in those courts unless they can't be resolved and then they're sent to a trial court,” he said.
While courts across California are experiencing lengthy backlogs due to budget cuts, data shows Sacramento courts dispose of 97 percent of criminal cases within a year.
NBC Bay Area asked to talk to the judge overseeing Santa Clara County’s criminal docket about this issue. The presiding judge for Santa Clara County Superior Courts, Patricia M. Lucas, did sit down to speak about delays in the civil court, saying budget cuts dating back more than a decade were a major causes of delays in civil court.
“It’s not the way we want to run the courts,” Judge Lucas said. “The major backlogs are in family and civil (courts), and there we have wait times for people who have an emergency need for a custody order (or other needs).”
Short staff, short work hours and a lack of funding for administrative and clerical positions have created a crisis according to Lucas.
“I’d say it’s gotten worse (in the last 10 years),” Lucas said. “Because the cumulative effect of years of underfunding is really taking its toll, even in courts that were able to absorb some of (the underfunding) early on. The cumulative effects is really taking hold (now).”
NBC Bay Area also asked to speak to the judge in charge of criminal courts in Santa Clara County. However, court administrators suddenly canceled that interview and said there would be no one available to answer questions about delays specific to criminal court calendars.
The below-average disposition rate in Santa Clara County has a very real impact on the families of crime victims, many of whom wait years for their cases to be resolved, said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen.
“Victims are outraged. (They) are entitled to be outraged. And their District Attorney is also outraged,” Rosen told NBC Bay Area.
“We have a case from 2007 where two men raped and murdered a woman, and that hasn’t been resolved yet. That’s not just unacceptable. It’s outrageous,” Rosen added.
Rosen pointed to other case examples, including the case against Jae Williams and Randy Thompson, two self-proclaimed Satanists who were accused of murdering their high school classmate, Michael Russell, in 2009. Williams was sentenced to 26 years to life in 2014 and Thompson was found guilty in 2016.
Another example: the case against Christopher Holland, who was convicted in 2015 of raping and murdering a teenager named Cynthia Munoz. The crime occurred in 1983, but it went unsolved until 2007 when DNA testing matched Holland to DNA left on the victim’s body. Holland wasn’t convicted until 2015.
While high profile crimes like these can often take a long time to wind through the courts, Rosen said he believes these specific instances involved proceedings that were delayed and prolonged unnecessarily.
Along with a “culture of complacency,” the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report placed blame on prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who allow the delays to happen. The grand jury cited Rosen’s office in particular, saying one reason for these delays was “the District Attorney’s approach to charging.”
Rosen says he and his office are already working to fix some of the issues enumerated in the grand jury’s report.
“It's true that the courts are underfunded. They are, and they need more funding,” Rosen said. “But it's also true that everybody in government, my office included, has to be more efficient with the taxpayer dollars that we receive.”
Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O’Neill took issue with the data and methodology used in the grand jury’s report, saying Santa Clara County was closer to average than the grand jury acknowledged. Even so, she admitted more could be done to become more efficient and reduce delays. She says her Public Defender’s office is already on it.
“There's always room for improvement, and we are looking at ways to do that because at the end of the day even though faster isn't better … it is not a good thing to have multiple delays and continuances,” O’Neill said. “So we're looking at it.”
The court calendar backlog problem dates back to 2008, when the economic downturn led to deep budget cuts to California’s courts. The lack of funding forced courts across the Bay Area to reduce office hours, wean staffing, and close entire courtrooms. But for years, those delays affected civil courts almost exclusively; it did not affect criminal court calendars, since the right to a speedy trial after a citizen is charged with a crime has always been a hallmark under both the federal and state Constitutions. Because of that constitutional principle, criminal court has always received priority during tight budget times.
Other counties besides Santa Clara County are feeling the impact too. In Contra Costa County, the felony disposition rate for 12 months or less is 74 percent, according to the Judicial Council of California’s latest 2016 report. In San Francisco, the rate is 68 percent.
“There is a tremendous problem” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.
Gascon says there simply are not enough judges, staff members and courtrooms to handle the caseload in San Francisco.
“We're often being pushed to settle a case in order to clear the docket to make room,” Gascon said. “So, that means that you may have cases that maybe have less import or are not the big homicide or sexual assault, but nevertheless there is a legitimate victim there.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi agrees that there is a “crisis in the courts” due to lack of funding, but he says the court has a responsibility to more responsibly use its limited resources.
“We don't have as many judges, and we have heavier dockets,” Adachi said. “And what we say to that is, well, then you can't prosecute as many cases.”
“And there needs to be a balance between wanting to efficiently handle cases and ensuring that the parties are doing what they need to do in a given case,” he added.
Wherever the blame falls, district attorneys paint a troubling picture of prosecutors routinely facing their own version of Sophie’s Choice, which cases live and which cases die.
“Surely the victim should have a right to have their case be attended to the fullest extent possible,” said Gascon. “And (right now) they're not (being given that attention) to the case. They (the lesser felony cases) are often being sold very cheaply for judicial economy. And this is something that drives us crazy.”
Because of this, he says his office has to prioritize.
“Am I going to spend a week trying a little residential burglary or a theft or fraud? Or am I going to clear the docket on this thing so that I can try the murder case or rape or a robbery or any armed robbery?” Gascon said. “That is a daily exercise for us.”
Even Lucas agreed that the backlog across the board in courts are delaying and thus denying justice.
“I think a delay of that nature (years) is a denial of justice,” Lucas said.
February 12, 2018
NBC Bay Area
By Stephen Stock, Rachel Witte, and Michael Horn
Saturday, February 10, 2018
[Kern County] Former general manager of community services district in Tehachapi charged with misappropriation of public funds
Blog note: this article references a 2016 Kern County Grand Jury report about the community services district.
Prosecutors filed felony charges Thursday against the former general manager of the Mountain Meadows Community Services District in Tehachapi who they say misappropriated more than $140,000 of public funds.
Richard E. Williford is charged with 18 felony counts of unlawful appropriation of public funds and six felony counts of entering into contracts with the district in which he had a personal financial interest, according to the District Attorney's office.
No arraignment date has been set.
Williford said Thursday he was unaware of the charges. He denied any wrongdoing.
"It’s not true," he said. "Of course it’s not true. But they’ve got their goal, that's obvious."
Mountain Meadows was established in 1970 and consists of 697 parcels just south of Highline Road, between Dennison Road and Curry Street.
Each parcel owner pays a $200 annual assessment fee to help maintain the 27 miles of roads, along with maintenance issues. Residents complained in early 2015 that those things weren't being done, and most of the district's equipment was either missing or in disrepair.
Among the top findings of a 2016 grand jury report into the district were that from July 7, 2007 until Feb. 17, 2015, the former general manager — Williford was not identified by name in the report — committed the district to expenditures amounting to $302,693.51 with multiple businesses that were owned by himself or members of his family.
For the period between Jan. 7, 2009 and July 30, 2013, while he served on the Board of Directors, he was paid $29,182 by the district as a consultant and for engineering fees, another apparent violation of California Government Code pertaining to special districts, the grand jury wrote.
The grand jury report also stated that beginning in May 2014, the former general manager began signing district checks by his own authority without a second signature of a board member. All checks recovered after that date only had his signature.
The grand jury investigation began after Williford filed a complaint in March 2015 "to confront what he perceived was Kern County government overreach against his total control over Mountain Meadow(s) Community Service(s) District," the report stated.
February 8, 2018
The Bakersfield Californian
Blog note. We do not usually post routine articles soliciting grand jury members. We post this one because it emphasizes geographical distribution in seeking applicants and targets the media placement to the geographical area of concern.
The Alameda County Civil Grand Jury office would like to see more Valley residents become candidates for service on the jury.
The Valley has been underrepresented on the Civil Grand Jury over the years, said Assistant District Attorney Rob Warren, the Civil Grand Jury’s advisor.
The Grand Jury examines government, and makes recommendations to help financial efficiency. It also attempts to spot any possible signs of corruption that might be occurring, to point it out. A criminal investigation, if necessary, would be up to District Attorney or state prosecutors.
Many of the current jury members are from Oakland, or other North County cities. Two judges go over the list of applicants. and choose the candidates who will serve, narrowing them down to 25 to 30 jurors.
Technically speaking, there should be five or six jurors from each of the county’s five supervisorial districts, for even distribution. But Oakland, with portions of three supervisorial districts, often predominates, because there are not many candidates from East County or South County, said Warren.
Warren said the distance between the Valley and Oakland apparently discourages would-be candidates from applying. It’s a long drive, although the county government buildings are close to a BART station.
From time to time, the Grand Jury does visit any Valley or South County sites that it wants to look at more closely.
The Grand Jury does its own reviewing, but also responds to citizen complaints.
Ray Souza, a former member, and later foreperson on previous Civil Grand Juries, said it is up to the foreperson to determine what is appropriate to investigate. In some instances, the kind of issue at stake might fall into the state’s jurisdiction, he said.
The Grand Jury operates with four committees. They deal with education and administration, health and social services, government, and law and justice.
Findings of the Grand Jury go to the examined agencies and governments, which then reply about a month later.
February 8, 2018
By Ron McNicoll
Blog note: this opinion piece references a 2015 Mendocino County Grand Jury report and then refers to it frequently.
A ragged 10-year-old boy is picking barefoot through an ocean of trash, patiently searching for anything of value that his family can turn into food or shelter. He steps on what turns out to be a fragile crust near the top of the heap, which collapses under his weight, breaking his leg in three places as it hits a sharp, hidden piece of jagged iron. His cries bring other children like himself to his aid; one, seeing blood and exposed bone, shouts to an adult below, who runs to the slum’s nearest phone to call for help. Forty-five long minutes pass before the jingle-jangle of an ambulance signals its slow approach down the rutted road to the screaming child. Gathering together the bare-bones and shoddy emergency medical equipment adds another ten minutes onto the boy’s rescue time before he is finally lifted out of the garbage cave and onto a stretcher. Within another five minutes, still more than half an hour from the nearest hospital, the boy dies from blood loss.
So whose fault is this? A child bled to death, surely there’s someone to blame! Is it the town’s or the county’s fault for dumping garbage haphazardly onto an unfenced, unsecured site? Is it the boy’s fault for being barefoot, or for stepping in the wrong place? Is it his parents’ fault, whose poverty drove them to send the boy out in the first place? Is it the state’s or even the country’s fault for not doing more to feed and shelter its most desperately poor members? Or maybe it’s the hospital’s fault for poorly allocating its meager funds for better emergency service.
This is a hypothetical example that sounds more developing Third World than American, but it’s one that plays out every day to lesser and greater degrees in our own financially strapped rural communities as they struggle with how best to care for their neglected or abused children in families with addictions, mental health issues, and violence ─ and to address the many questions it raises. Is there some way to keep a child in his or her home to minimize the disruption of displacement? Are there responsible and beloved family members willing to step up? If not is there a foster home available, preferably within the county? Are parents open to treatment and reunification with their kids? These are just a few of the questions faced by families in crisis.
The true nature and depth of the problem is shrouded in two impenetrable layers of secrecy.
The first shields the family itself. “As a society we see children as their parents’ property,” said Mendocino County Health and Human Services (HHS) Agency Chief Operations Officer Anne Molgaard, who took over leadership of HHS about a year and a half ago. The county’s Family and Children’s Services (FCS) ─ formerly Child Protective Services ─ is part of HHS.
The second layer of secrecy is the much-touted confidentiality clauses attached to any sort of care (intended for the hopefuls who still believe in the myth that privacy still exists in this country). Then again, unlike banks or financial institutions, few hackers seem interested, at least so far, in run-of-the-mill medical records.
So what we’re left with are numbers, measurements, and graphs – hundreds of pages of them. The arguably most emotionally up-close-and-personal department assesses its strengths and weaknesses through the same sort of monthly and quarterly performance metrics common to all organizations ─ in this case things like emergency response times, employee turnover, and dozens of other data points. The difficulty of this analytical view is duly noted in the three-paragraph summary to the May, 2015, Mendocino Grand Jury Report entitled the Children at Risk report: The Grand Jury reminds the reader that beyond the dry recitation of facts, beneath the numbers and statistics, behind the charts and graphs, there are real human lives involved. There are children in harm’s way. (More on this report later.)
So on a macro level, this is how the whole ball of wax works. It all starts in our nation’s capitol, where guidelines for regulations are developed by the more than 79,000-employee cabinet-level U.S. Health and Human Services, currently under the questionable guidance and leadership of Trump appointee Secretary Alex Azar, a former Eli Lilly executive who says now that he cares a whole lot about skyrocketing drug costs and is making it his priority. The price diabetics pay for Eli Lilly’s insulin drugs Humalog and Humulin have both risen some 225% since 2011. Eli Lilly also has several blockbuster drugs including the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis (Surely you’ve seen their TV commercial where a couple tenderly holds hands across side-by-side footed hot tubs in a forest, next to the banner, When the moment is right why pause to take a pill or stop to find a bathroom?),and the antidepressant Cimbalta (one in six Americans now takes an antidepressant, second only to Iceland). Trump and Company are making noises about drastically cutting funding to the agency, but so far, in looking at the stats, it doesn’t look like many of those cuts have been made ─ yet. But I digress.
From Washington D.C., guidelines and funding flow to the states, in this case to the California Department of Health Care Services in Sacramento. Mendocino County, like all counties in the state, inputs FCS activities and programs into a state database. The state evaluates these monthly progress reports from Mendocino County and meets quarterly with FCS representatives. Progress and problems are currently quantified and assessed in the state’s report entitled the 2016 – 2021 System Improvement Plan, released on September 23, 2016. It’s described as “a 5-year strategic plan” and a “systematic analysis of the county’s Child Welfare and Juvenile Probation systems.” The success or failure of meeting targets in this long-range state plan for Mendocino County then becomes the yardstick by which the state determines the county agency’s improvements and, ultimately, its funding. “We’re a kind of payer department,” Molgaard said, “We are reimbursed 95% by state and federal. We report on things like how many kids we attended to, how many are in foster care.” When asked if this is an incentive system of sorts, Molgaard said not really, that it’s more like “this is what we’re doing, this is what we plan to do, and this is how much it costs.” She said that the reporting is highly detailed but not perfect. “The farther you get away from the work the less relevant that work,” she said, meaning that, however well intentioned, Sacramento can still be a long way from Mendocino County.
Mendocino County’s 2015 Children at Risk Grand Jury report dropped like a bomb in the county. The stark report laid bare the many ways the county was failing to protect its neglected and abused children, everything from follow-up home visits to closing cases to adequately investigating foster homes and doing thorough background checks on short- and long-term homes where children are placed. According to the report these failures were set in a department with high turnover, poor morale, and a dearth of social workers in general and adequately educated social workers in particular.
One of the first, if not the first to raise the alarm was Tim Turner, a veteran social worker of 20 years who was employed twice by FCS, with a 2-year stint in Virginia in between. Turner says he was demoted on March 27, 2017 from his supervisor position for bringing problems to his supervisor Jena Conner and humiliated when he was escorted from his office in front of members of his staff, an event that Molgaard categorically denies ever happened. Personnel actions are, naturally, confidential. Today Turner still works at HHS, but in a lower position working with adults. He is undeniably passionate about social work and equally passionate about raising a flag when he sees something he thinks is wrong. “We take care of kids whose lives are at stake,” he said. ‘I’m surprised we don’t have a dead kid a day.”
Organizations have love/hate relationships with squeaky wheels like Turner, who expose their organizations’ failings before the unblinking public eye. They may on some level realize that airing their dirty laundry, lancing the boil so to speak, could down the road improve their organizations but they hate to hear it anyway; and they especially hate the messengers. There’s a reason that the message embedded in The Emperor Has no Clothes, a fable first written in 1837 and later adapted by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson in his Fairy Tales Told for Children, still resonates nearly a century-and-a-half later.
There is no doubt that Turner was at the very least one of the first (if not the first) to report to the Grand Jury in 2014 that all was not well at FCS. He produced the email trail that proves it. The name of the Grand Jury member with whom Turner communicated will not be revealed here. California’s 1953 Ralph M. Brown Act, which mandates that California city and county government agencies, boards, and councils conduct their business openly in public, does not, due to the nature of their work, apply to grand jury deliberations. Foreperson of the 2017 Grand Jury follow-up Carol Rosenberg did say “We felt really good about the report…some in the agency got some things right on.” She added that she thought the fixes “are really doable.”
Listing all of the areas of child health and welfare studied in the first Grand Jury report would consume all of the available space in both this and next week’s edition of this newspaper, so only a few highlights appear here.
Set out in stark black-and-white prose, FCS’s situation looked grim. Unfilled social worker positions, high turnover, fewer higher-level social workers than mandated by the state, poor non-crisis response times, weak oversight of foster homes and foster parents, hundreds of cases languishing within the system, unclosed or not revisited.
This was about the time that Molgaard assumed the HHS leadership, which she says she did with her eyes wide open, though she also said “they’re never open enough.” Molgaard moved to Mendocino County 25 years ago after finishing law school in the Bay Area to work in the county’s poverty programs. She came to HHS from running FIRST 5 Mendocino, one of 58 county commissions funded by Proposition 10, a tobacco tax passed by California voters in 1998, to fund non-smoking programs for children from birth to five years old. Those tax dollars are distributed to counties based on birth rate. Molgaard says that a FIRST 5 Mendocino white paper “took us to task, but that the first Grand Jury report did not really take social workers to task. They concluded that social workers did not have the tools to do their jobs.” Technical tools were things like no Smart Phones or tablets to record (and seek when necessary) information from the field (eliminating the need to go back to the office after every home visit).
I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks he or she makes enough money. Turns out that Mendocino County’s entry-level social worker annual salary of $37,460 is close to the middle in a comparison of the other rural northern California counties of Humboldt, Lake, Glenn, Colusa, and Shasta listed in the second Grand Jury follow-up report. And though the report concludes that low pay is a major issue, especially in hiring higher-level, more educated social workers, the difference between the salaries of those higher-level employees and supervisors in those same counties is only a few thousand dollars a year. But when you add the fact that those salaries were cut 10% across the board back in 2011 it’s easier to understand the mass exodus of experienced social workers between 2011 and 2014. And who cuts social worker salaries, anyway? Priorities…
But money isn’t everything. The FCS work environment and how it affects morale are right up there, too. Molgaard conceded that “People who are satisfied don’t jump.” But Grand Jury interviewees expressed concern that newly hired social workers would train in Mendocino County to get experience then decamp to higher-paying counties, a practice known as “train-and-trot.”
Morale problems cited in the follow-up report include loss of collegiality and leadership team consultation, abrupt personnel changes, lack of adequate staff and equipment, lack of respect for experience and dedication, and fear of retribution.
Jena Conner, who has oversight over social workers, looked hurt and confused when asked if it was true that, heard through the grapevine, she discourages negative information and punishes those who bring it to her attention. “I try to always ask myself if an issue needs my or a supervisor’s attention,” she told me. “It doesn’t do any good to let things fester.” Molgaard added that “Nobody’s perfect,” noting that, “If there are morale problems, people get paranoid.”
Emergency response is another major area addressed in both Grand Jury reports, and in this critical area FCS is not alone in the world. Social workers are often joined at the hip with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department, which is tasked with protecting the public and determining if laws have been broken. Mendocino County Captain and Field Services Commander Greg Van Patten, who was born in Ukiah, has 23 years with the county sheriff’s department, and oversees staffing of the county’s 24/7 emergency lines in three stations, said that assessing the immediacy and severity of people calling in with emergencies, about 15% of which involve children, is both science and art. “There’s a gray area between what is abuse and what isn’t,” he said, adding that from the get-go around 60% of incoming calls are bogus (think acrimonious divorce custody cases).
Van Patten says FCS and his department’s detectives (4 for sexual abuse, 12 for all other violent offenses) need to support each other. “In a lot of cases the child can’t tell you what’s going on,” so “you need to get a grasp on what is the truth or a lie.” He says that in an emergency requiring immediate intervention (a panicky kid calling from a suspected crack house to say that his mom and her boyfriend are loaded and the boyfriend has a gun and is beating her up) typically both a social worker and a deputy show up at the scene. Van Patten also says, like FCS, that keeping everything staffed around the clock is a challenge. “You’ve got to have people working all the time, we can’t put up a sign that says ‘we’ll be back in eight hours’.” Also like in FCS, he says that making emergency calls to homes with children takes an emotional toll. “It makes you fearful for your own kids,” he said. “Being a parent myself, I want to just go home and hug my kids.”
Though it does not have direct control over FCS per se (Molgaard reports directly to Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo), FCS does make regular reports to the county’s five supervisors.
Looking around, it’s hard to disagree with Hamburg’s gloomy scenario, but the county can’t just pick up stakes, load a wagon, and move someplace else. The feds send guidelines, codified into law, to the states. The states in turn take those guidelines and tailor them to their counties, in California’s case 58 of them, one of which is Mendocino County. Mendocino County then looks around at its failing social systems, rising drug addiction and poverty rates, and tries to figure out how children ensnared in that scenario can somehow be saved from conditions that can eventually morph into adult lives of addiction, crime, and violence. Then all that human chaos and suffering has to somehow be reduced to hundreds of pages of action items that will satisfy the state that the county is making things better instead of worse. Would you want that job?
You can feel in the FCS leadership that they’re making an effort to stay positive about the incremental changes they’re making; they know they can’t just throw in the towel in the face of insurmountable societal odds and go home to hide under the covers. Molgaard freely shared all the most recent FCS data that Sacramento will use to measure the county’s improvements since the second and final Grand Jury follow-up: social workers and supervisors have been issued Smart Phones and tablets capable of privacy-protected access to the state’s database, reducing return trips to the office; more vehicles have been purchased so social workers aren’t delayed by waiting for one; Emergency Response units in Ukiah have been relieved of routine court work so they have more time to spend on investigations; the social worker vacancy rate is now 7 out of 47 positions instead of the 16 to 18 vacancies in past years; last summer social worker salaries were raised between 2% to 20%, depending upon classification; numbers show that the county is inching closer to the state mandate that at least 90% of both immediate and 10-day responses meet their response targets; there’s a new marketing plan to attract more foster families so fewer kids need to go out of state, far from their friends and families.
No one pretends that these incremental changes will protect the county’s children from the abuse or neglect they’ve landed in through the collapse of traditional social systems.
Meth use, for example, after starting to fall, is peaking again. Molgaard says that 80% of neglect cases involve drugs. “If they’re doing meth they don’t feed their kids because they’re never hungry,” she said. She’s quick to point out that poverty does not automatically mean abuse or neglect, that plenty of poor families provide love and support for their kids. She also says that the big difference between a healthy and non-healthy home has nothing to do with housekeeping, that it ultimately doesn’t matter if a house is a mess. There are many judgment calls. Is the child left alone too much? Is the child old enough and responsible enough to be a latch-key kid? Is the child safe?
Molgaard disagreed with my suggestion that neglected and abused kids might be better off in a clean, state-run orphanage than in often multiple foster homes, despite all the horrors we read about as kids in novels written by Charles Dickens. “Our society has changed but a child’s needs have not,” she said. “Young children need personal, one-on-one, eye-to-eye contact attention across a dinner table. Those needs have not changed over the millennia.”
February 7, 2018
Anderson Valley Advertiser
By Marilyn Davin
The 2017-18 Napa County grand jury wants to make certain its predecessors received more than lip service from Napa County on issues ranging from elections to food safety.
This citizen watchdog group, which works under the authority of the Napa County Superior Court, asked the county if it followed through on certain recommendations made by previous grand juries in years gone by.
The county Board of Supervisors has approved answers that amounted to saying that the county takes input from grand juries seriously, even if it sometimes disagrees with the advice.
One recommendation came from the 2012-13 grand jury report on the county Election Division. That report noted that, because the Registrar of Voters is an elected position, the county cannot appoint an independent elections board as an elections overseer.
“The grand jury is concerned that the Registrar of Voters is the sole and final arbiter of ballot inspection and verification for his own election,” the report said.
County supervisors back then said these issues required further analysis. Today’s grand jury is asking, ‘Did you ever follow through?’
Yes, the Board of Supervisors said in its latest response. The Board in 2013 discussed the matter and concluded that an elected Registrar of Voters position is more cost-effective and efficient.
The 2014-15 grand jury looked at training for the county’s 200 volunteer firefighters. It found that training class times often were inconvenient for volunteers with full-time jobs and that more qualified trainers were needed.
“All the people interviewed acknowledged that ongoing training was the biggest issue for all volunteers,” the 2014-15 report said.
The grand jury recommended asking for input from all volunteer firefighters on training issues and presenting a plan to resolve the issues. The county responded that it would do so by Dec. 31, 2015.
Task accomplished, the Board of Supervisors said in its latest response, approved in January.
The 2014-15 grand jury issued a report titled “Are Napa County Wineries Following the Rules?” The grand jury concluded the county needed to do more to make certain wineries comply with county-issued use permits limiting wine production and visitation.
One flaw the grand jury found was that county’s annual winery audit looks at about 20 wineries and the county has more than 450 wineries. The grand jury wanted all wineries audited at least once every five years.
The county’s latest response said the Board of Supervisors has since held six workshops on the topic, as well as had other discussions at public meetings. The Board could approve a new winery audit regime in coming months.
If all goes as planned, the county will audit all wineries in the unincorporated county every year to see if they are complying with their county-approved wine production limits.
The 2015-16 grand jury looked at the county’s inspection program for 750 restaurants and food trucks. It praised the county’s efforts to reduce the risk of customers falling ill from contaminated food.
But the grand jury also had a recommendation – expand resources devoted to the training of restaurant owners and employees on food safety practices.
The county’s latest response said the program is operating efficiently and meeting its minimum responsibilities with no increased public health risks. Food safety education efforts can’t be expanded because an increase in restaurants and food events keeps staff focused on routine inspections and follow-ups.
But the county could look again within two years at increasing food inspection staff.
That is only a sampling of the 2017-18 grand jury’s follow-up questions and the county’s responses. The two parties went over certain recommendations contained in 12 reports.
While the 2017-18 grand jury wanted to know if Napa County paid more than lip service to past grand juries, it also wanted county officials to keep their lips sealed publicly when replying. But that didn’t happen.
Supervisors first took up the issue in December during a public session to the consternation of the Grand Jury. Grand Jury foreperson Alan Charles Dell’Ario said the Grand Jury wanted the county to simply send over the answers in private and accused county officials of violating “investigative confidentiality.”
But county officials said answers from the Board of Supervisors had to be approved by the Board of Supervisors during a public meeting. They also said they didn’t know the grand jury’s requests were part of an ongoing investigation.
The fracas seems to be over, at least for now.
“They said they didn’t understand what we wanted,” Dell’Ario said last week. “I have some reservations about that answer, but that’s (their) answer and we’ve moved on at this point.”
February 7, 2018
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling
Blog note: this article references a 2015-16 Marin County Grand Jury report.
The Rotary Club of Terra Linda shone a spotlight on the topic of human trafficking on Saturday.
The service club, in partnership with Rotary District 5150, representing Marin County, San Francisco and San Mateo County, hosted a presentation on the hidden problem of human trafficking to a crowd of more than 60 people at the Marin County Office of Education.
“It’s about awareness,” said Laurel Botsford, the Rotary Club of Terra Linda member who organized the event. “We have to get the word out — get it out of the shadows — expose it to the light. That’s why trafficking has been able to flourish for so long. Nobody wanted to talk about it. It was too horrible to face.”
Details were laid out about the $150 billion human trafficking industry prevalent across major hubs across the nation, including the Bay Area and Marin. Out of 13 FBI-identified hot spots for human trafficking, four of those locales are in California — San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
“We have huge problem,” said Botsford, a trained volunteer with Ambassador of Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to ending sex trafficking. “We’re top on the list and the next highest state of Texas has half the amount of trafficking that we are involved with. Marin is a hub because of all the access that we have here — in and out very quickly through all of our highways and bridges, but also because of all the money we have here. It takes money and that attracts human traffickers.”
Botsford said there is no data on human trafficking activities across Marin, but the Marin County Coalition to End Human Trafficking began efforts last year to collect statistics. She said without data, organizations are unlikely to fetch funding to fight against the issue.
Trafficking, which includes labor and commercial sexual exploitation, has made victims of 40.3 million people worldwide, Botsford said. She said of those people, 68 percent are being trafficked for labor, with about 32 percent trafficked for sex. The most common recruitment age for victims of sexual trafficking is 12 to 14 years old for girls, and 11 to 13 years old for boys. Ninety-nine percent of buyers are men, with most between the ages of 18 and 89, Botsford said.
A 2015-16 Marin County Civil Grand Jury report on human trafficking said human sex trafficking is believed to be prevalent in Marin, but that it goes largely unrecognized, under-reported and is rarely subject to intervention. The report lists a handful of recommendations for fighting back against the trade, including ensuring all law enforcement agencies are consistently training officers in human trafficking protocol and that fire departments are training emergency personnel to recognize human trafficking and where victims can find help.
But presenters said advances are being made to fight against trafficking. Chief Deputy District Attorney Rosemary Slote, who also chairs the Marin County Coalition to End Human Trafficking, said the coalition, created in 2014 under the Marin County District Attorney’s Office, has been busy over the past year.
“They developed victim resources cards and they’ve distributed those to local hospitals and shelters,” she said. “They’ve partnered with local libraries to host forums on human trafficking.”
In response to the state Legislature passing Senate Bill 1193 and Assembly Bill 260, both which require select businesses to post information with resources for trafficking victims, coalition members hit the streets. The members visited hotels, massage parlors and other businesses with posters containing the required information.
Gov. Jerry Brown in October also signed Assembly Bill 1227, requiring public schools to educate middle and high school students on sexual abuse and sex trafficking prevention.
For those wanting to combat human trafficking, Botsford said they should educate themselves on the topic and learn the signs to recognizing potential trafficking.
“It’s much less scary when you become informed and you find out what to watch for,” she said.
Russell Wilson, an Oakland-based researcher and consultant on human trafficking, also stressed the importance of recognizing the signs of human trafficking. The signs to watch out for can be found at humantraffickinghotline.org.
“We all come in contact with people on a regular basis out there,” he said. “Inevitably you’re going to run into somebody who’s probably being exploited. If you can recognize the signs, you might be able to make a difference.”
Brian Wo, co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, said boys need to realize that manhood is not validated “by making sexual conquests,” and that it is not appropriate to engage in sexual “locker room talk” about womens’ bodies.
“Ultimately there has to be an underlying cultural shift so we no longer think it’s okay to objectify women,” Wo said. “This is something, for any parents in the room, as we grow up our next generation of boys, I think we can nip this in the bud by the next generation and make a huge cultural shift.”
February 2, 2018
Marin Independent Journal
By Stephanie Weldy
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
As a recent grand jury report made clear, citywide school district elections are unfair and expensive and don't always reflect the diversity within the student population.
A recent San Diego County Grand Jury report shed much-needed light on the broken and outdated method of electing pre-K-12 school board members in the city of San Diego. During a primary election, a candidate competes at what’s known as the sub-district level and the winner reflects the will of the people. But the winner may go on to lose to the runner-up in a general, citywide competition.
That’s not only unfair, it’s expensive and it disadvantages candidates without endorsements or financial backing. As the grand jury’s report noted, citywide school district elections place “an enormous financial burden” on the candidate, and the outcomes don’t always reflect the diversity within the San Diego Unified student population.
Allowing board members to serve without any limitations on terms, the report also noted, is ineffective. When term limits are in place, an elected official is much more likely to focus on what’s best for the people who elected them, rather than focus on the politics of being re-elected. While I believe our school board members care deeply about our students, the current election system also forces them to split their time every couple years between the governance of the school district and running again for office.
Change, in this case, can only be implemented by the San Diego City Council because the school district’s election rules are controlled by the city charter. It’s my sincere hope that the City Council — including my fellow Democrats — will reconsider its recent decision and put proposals on the 2018 ballot that institute term limits and district-only elections, and place weight on the recommendations coming from the community as heavily as those coming from the school board members.
I imagine that smart and sensible reforms like these already enjoy wide-spread support throughout our community, particularly as they mirror the ways in which we currently vote for city council members and county supervisors.
I’ve worked in education for more than nine years and I grew up in San Diego, but it wasn’t until I became a teacher on the other side of the country that my eyes were opened to how crucial a strong pre-K-12 school system is to the future of a community. The United States has fallen among reputable publications, which doesn’t surprise me given that our literacy and math rates have dramatically descended — from first in the world to below the top 20 or 30, depending on the metric.
The success of our schools is inextricably linked to the future shape of our economy, and anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the state of public education in our city and across our country will know that our system is in need of some repair.
It’s disconcerting that our council members appear to want nothing to do with this responsibility, turning to political party lines for guidance in how to move forward, rather than to educators and the community. They spend a lot of time talking about the economy, the homelessness and public health crises, and offer ideas for tackling the housing shortage. But they say little about a strong pre-K-12 strategy.
In 2015, the San Diego County Office of Education’s Achievement Gap Task Force found that only 26 percent of our students are projected to complete a post-secondary education opportunity. I’m not an economist, but I don’t see how our economy can outpace others if our leaders don’t invest the next generation of thinkers, dreamers, and innovators.
I’m not advocating for elected city leaders taking over schools. I’ve never seen an effective example of that system. But ensuring that our region has quality schools for all students needs to be atop the priority list for our mayor, council members, and other elected representatives.
This can be accomplished by having educators on their staffs, by visiting schools, by asking tough questions of school board officials and learning from parents and students, and by working more closely in developing a regional strategy alongside our educational leaders. They should be informed, demonstrate a desire to hold themselves and elected school board officials accountable for the success of our schools, and invest more funding into quality pre-K-12 education programs.
Rather than run away from problems, they should do everything they can to be informed by teachers, students, parents, community members and experts, with the goal of improving the school system overall while keeping an eye towards the future of our regional economy.
That begins by re-thinking the way we elect our representation.
January 25, 2018
Voice of San Diego
Opinion by Andrew Simmerman