RESULTS IN BRIEF
In January 1999, the body of Dustin Haaland, a 4-year-old boy allegedly killed by his father, was found in Fresno. The paroled father, who had been in prison for abusing the boy's older brother, was clearly a threat to his children, yet under current law, the California Department of Corrections (Corrections) was not obligated to notify Child Protective Services (CPS) of his release. However, even if CPS had known about the father's release, the agency might not have taken preventive action because it lacks clear authority to intervene without new allegations of abuse.
To have been in a position to prevent this tragedy, CPS would had to have known that the father was being paroled, seen the danger in the father's return, and had the authority to reopen its case to monitor the family. Such a scenario will only be feasible in the future if there are changes in information exchanges between law enforcement and CPS, and changes in CPS's ability to act in similar cases.
For CPS to have the opportunity to protect children from abuse by released inmates, law enforcement must allow the agency to inquire about past child abusers and share with CPS information about the release of any adults who pose threats to children. Under "Dustin's Law," named for Dustin Haaland, the 4-year-old boy slain in Fresno, parole agents must report to CPS if a parolee convicted of crimes against children contacts the victim or victim's family, and the parole agency must also notify local law enforcement when such parolees are released.
Dustin's Law, however, leaves CPS uninformed about these parolees' release. The agency first learns about released inmates when they break parole by contacting former victims, but by then the parolees may have committed further abuse. This recent legislation also says nothing about child abusers who may have been incarcerated for crimes other than those against children, or about abusers who receive probation. To be most effective, the various agencies must cooperate by identifying all inmates likely to be a risk to children, even if they have not been formally charged with or convicted of crimes against children.
In response to Dustin's death, Fresno County recently created a task force of staff from CPS, probation, and parole that seeks improved communication between CPS and law enforcement. The task force has been devising cooperative actions that will increase protection for children at risk by conducting more training and increasing communication and home visits.
Even if CPS had known of Dustin's father's release, it might not have removed the child from his home or taken other measures to protect the boy. Statutes and regulations governing the agency indicate there must be an allegation of child abuse before CPS takes any action. CPS staff, judges who handle child dependency cases, and staff of the Department of Social Services (Social Services), which oversees CPS, have varying opinions about whether CPS has the authority to intervene in the family of a parolee with a history of child abuse. Without an allegation of new abuse or a court order, the agency's only recourse may be to convince such families to work voluntarily with CPS staff. Social Services also does not know what impact there will be on CPS since the number of inmates released from state and county incarceration that have abused children in the past is unknown.
To further protect vulnerable children, law enforcement agencies must do more to address the threat of child abuse. These agents and officers are required by law to report child abuse and are in a good position to monitor convicts who may be guilty of this crime. Therefore, parole agents and probation officers need more training to recognize abuse. Parole agents are authorized to order convicted child abusers away from children, yet do not always do so. Corrections must encourage its parole agents to consistently use this authority to improve the safety of vulnerable children.
To more fully bridge the communication gap between CPS agencies and law enforcement, to clarify CPS's role in working with abuse victims, and to encourage more training for probation officers to effectively identify and report child abuse, the Legislature should:
Fresno County's CPS and Probation Department, and Tulare County's CPS all concur with our recommendations. Social Services stated that our analysis is thorough but believes that between new legislation and modeling county CPS agencies' actions after Fresno County's task force, significant progress can be made toward protecting children from abuse and neglect. Corrections agrees with our recommendations for more training and prohibiting abusers from contacting their victims. However, Corrections believes caution should be used when determining how much information to share with CPS agencies.