Gail Fry |

At least four lawsuits alleging cover up of physical and sexual abuse of foster children net plaintiffs more than $10 million in two settlements and one jury verdict (now under appeal), with the fourth lawsuit still in process. All of the four cases point the finger at San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services for its failure to protect these children. 

The Department of Children and Family Services mission statement is, Children and Family Services (CFS) protects endangered children, preserves, and strengthens their families, and develops alternative family settings. Services mandated by law and regulations will be provided in the least intrusive manner with a family centered focus. This mission is accomplished in collaboration with the family, a wide variety of public and private agencies and members of the community.”

The Goal of CFS is: “…to keep the child at home when it is safe. If it is determined that the child is at risk, the goal is then to develop an alternative plan as quickly as possible.”

The County of San Bernardino has settled for more than $7.5 million in two civil settlements, and one $2.5 million jury verdict involving Child and Family Services. The $2.5M jury verdict is currently being appealed by the county. (Illustration by Chris Allen, VOICE).

In response to a Black Voice News and IE Voice inquiry regarding whether the County of San Bernardino (SBC) planned any reviews of or changes to processes at CFS in light of the over $10 million in two civil settlements, and one jury verdict involving CFS, SBC Public Information Officer David Wert responded, “Children and Family Services policy is consistent with applicable laws and other regulations, and always has been. CFS continues to hire staff at all levels on a continuous basis.”However, the county’s record in this regard is documented in at least four lawsuits, as confirmed by the California State Attorney General’s announcement of an investigation in 2016, and as laid out in several SBC Grand Jury reports, says otherwise.

WHISTLEBLOWER: Former San Bernardino County employee Eric Bahra warned the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department as well as Children and Family Services, of a “systemic failure” resulting in a total of 54 foster children being placed in the home of a known abuser. (source: https://provider.kareo.com/eric-bahra).

A history of failures: The lawsuits 

The first lawsuitAs reported by the IE Voice and Black Voice News, the first lawsuit was filed in federal court on December 14, 2016, by SBC Social Worker and whistleblower, Eric Bahra, naming the County of San Bernardino, San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services (CFS) and its employees, Kristine Burgamy and Nickola Hackett.

The case alleged the county retaliated after Bahra discovered and reported CFS failure to monitor, human error, and systemic failure resulted in 54 foster children being placed in the home of known serial child molester, Leonardo Rodriguez, whose foster home license had been revoked.

Attorney Charles Bonner testifying that because of a systemic failure within the department, CFS placed 54 foster children over the years into the unlicensed foster home of Leonardo Rodriguez, who sexually molested numerous foster children. (Source: Gail Fry, Black Voice News and IE Voice).

The case alleged the county retaliated after Bahra discovered and reported CFS failure to monitor, human error, and systemic failure resulted in 54 foster children being placed in the home of known serial child molester, Leonardo Rodriguez, whose foster home license had been revoked.

Attorney Charles Bonner testifying that because of a systemic failure within the department, CFS placed 54 foster children over the years into the unlicensed foster home of Leonardo Rodriguez, who sexually molested numerous foster children. (Source: Gail Fry, Black Voice News and IE Voice).

According to court documents, SBC took Eric Bahra’s whistleblower lawsuit all the way to a jury trial, where after hearing testimony and reviewing evidence, the jury awarded Bahra $2.5 million in damages. 

The Second Lawsuit

Attorney Jack Anthony filed this lawsuit on behalf of five of the 54 children placed in the foster home of serial child molester, Leonardo Rodriguez. 

Anthony credited Bahra’s accurate allegations with helping him establish that the county had notice foster parent Rodriguez had a history of molesting, mistreating and neglecting foster children.

San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services Gifford Street office. (hs.sbcounty.gov/).

Bahra’s testimony gave Anthony the ability to obtain a substantial confidential settlement and some kind of justice for five of Rodriguez’ victims.  

According to Bahra’s Attorney, Charles Bonner, Leonardo Rodriguez, was never arrested or charged with his crimes for molesting numerous foster children even though SBC Sheriff Detective Michelle Brand was present at the interview of one of the molested children.

Attorney Charles Bonner testified that San Bernardino County Detective Michelle Brand and former CFS social worker Eric Bahra were present when a 10-year old girl testified about being molested by foster parent Leonardo Rodriguez, who was never arrested or charged for his crimes. (graphic)

Attorney Charles Bonner testified that San Bernardino County Detective Michelle Brand asked for all the information including the names of foster children placed in  the home of foster parent Leonardo Rodriguez, and yet Rodriguez was never arrested or charged for his  alleged crimes. (Source: Gail Fry, Black Voice News and IE Voice).

The Third LawsuitOn August 30, Attorney Eric S. Rossman, representing foster/adoptive parents William and Michelle Mueller, and grandparent Michael Dobie, announced the $7.5 million settlement reached with San Bernardino County.

The lawsuit claimed San Bernardino County and/or its social worker, Deborah Kay, knew of sexual abuse, were negligent, and failed to protect a boy known as E.M. from being sexually abused by his older brother when placed together in foster care. (Illustration by Chris Allen, VOICE).

The Mueller federal lawsuit claimed CFS intentionally covered up the abuse of a foster child (younger sibling), by another foster child (older sibling), from the Muellers before their planned adoption of both children.

Eric Rossman, Attorney for the Mueller Family, testified his investigation found there were ongoing issues with San Bernardino County CFS, including prior lawsuits, and a critical grand jury report. (source: Gail Fry, IE Voice and Black Voice News).

The Fourth Lawsuit

This lawsuit, still pending, was filed at the San Bernardino Superior Court on September 25, 2015, when former SBC Social Worker Mary Anna Whitehall claimed the County of San Bernardino was involved in fraud upon the court, the cover up of child abuse within its foster care program, and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Whitehall alleges the county retaliated against her after her March 6, 2014, testimony to the San Bernardino Superior Court where she asserted that SBC CFS committed a fraud upon the court to obstruct justice and discredit former social worker turned whistleblower, Eric Bahra. 

Additionally, Whitehall claims that in committing the fraud upon the court, CFS covered up and failed to investigate the suspicious death of a baby found at the home of its biological parents, and allowed those parents to keep their remaining children.    

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled in the Whitehall case for October 27, at 8:30 a.m. in front of San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Bryan Foster at the San Bernardino Justice Center.

The Whitehall case is scheduled for October 27 in front of San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Bryan Foster. (source: wsbcba.org).

All four lawsuits describe a poorly run department that fails to protect foster children placed in its care, which can result in children being forever psychologically and physically damaged.     

A history of failures as identified by SBC Grand Jury

The SBC Civil Grand Jury (CGJ), an independent civil watchdog agency formed each year, investigates citizen complaints as well as county agencies, towns, cities, and special districts within San Bernardino County.  

The SBC CGJ has focused on issues at CFS in many of their annual reports over the previous decade.

2015-16 Grand Jury Report 

Members of the 2015-2016 San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury interviewed management employees, law enforcement officers, and county counsel asking for their views on its operations.  

County counsel stressed the need for trained social workers, accurate documentation, and due to problems in CFS that had resulted in the death of children, the department was also required to provide risk assessment training beginning in September 2014.

Eric Rossman, Attorney for the Mueller Family, testified his law firm investigated CFS looking at training, supervision and procedures. They found social workers had ignored red flags indicating a child at risk. (Source: Gail Fry, Black Voice News and IE Voice).

The grand jury interviews with county counsel, law enforcement officers, and CFS employees revealed competing interests:  County counsel prefer safety of the child be prioritized over family unification; law enforcement seeks to arrest perpetrators of child abuse; while CFS is interested in keeping families together.

Attorney Charles Bonner testifying that foster parent Leonardo Rodriguez, who sexually molested and photographed numerous foster children, was never arrested or charged for his crimes. (Source: Gail Fry, Black Voice News and IE Voice).

The grand jury report further revealed CFS social workers have heavy caseloads and “tremendous turnover,” with senior staffing below desired levels, no system to determine training effectiveness, no job descriptions from which to measure performance, with only annual performance reviews.   

In addition, CFS had no drug or alcohol testing equipment to determine if a parent is under the influence according to the report. This resulted in children not being removed from the home or notification to law enforcement. 

Law enforcement told the grand jury that its working relationship with CFS needs improvement, confidentiality claims led the department to receive redacted CFS reports from county counsel, which– according to law enforcement–interfered with investigations, also members of the department were normally excluded from Child Dependency Court Proceedings.  

The grand jury was critical of the fact that case files they requested took seven months to be received, made recommendations to address issues it identified, and suggested recommendation, explaining California Department of Social Services (DSS) provides oversight of CFS, and enforces compliance with state laws and regulations.  

2016-17 Grand Jury Report 

The 2016-2017 Grand Jury highlighted every child has a right to permanency, being placed either back with their biological family, a family member, adopted, or in a group home, with federal and state laws requiring this occur within 12 months from the date the child enters foster care, after which federal and state funding ceases to cover CFS services.

The grand jury found compensation disputes regarding social workers had reached a standoff with management in 2014. This allowed the SBC BOS to reduce their salaries by seven percent causing low morale and loss of social workers. 

After employees changed their union affiliation, salaries of CFS social workers were restored in 2016, with a two percent raise in 2017, and a three percent raise in 2018.  As a result, the grand jury noted CFS was approaching full staffing.

Eric Rossman, Attorney for the Mueller Family, explained voters need to look at whether CFS is being properly funded to do what they are supposed to do to protect children. (Source: Gail Fry, Black Voice News and IE Voice).

To recruit social workers, CFS was offering new opportunities and incentives such as salary increases, a remote assignment incentive, decreasing case loads, and funds to pursue college degrees.  

The department extended recruitment across state lines, and increased staff diversity.

The grand jury determined there were improvements by CFS including a new tool to assess child safety and decision-making, improved coordination and training with law enforcement.     

2018-19 Grand Jury Report 

The 2018-19 Grand Jury noted that past grand juries investigated and discovered problems and issues at CFS and it also found that CFS had been unsuccessful in meeting department’s challenges, primarily due to personnel issues and large caseloads.

The 2018-19 Grand Jury decided to visit the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office to gather information regarding children in the care of or supervised by Children & Family Services, who died because of abuse.  

After visiting the coroner’s office to learn how it was documenting child deaths, the grand jury found the current record system in place was outdated, and specialized reports were difficult to produce and could not easily categorize the cause(s) of death.   

The 2018-19 Grand Jury found poor employee morale, high turnover of personnel, high caseloads due to population growth, workforce shortages, lack of supervision, and field visits were rare.  

The 2018-19 Grand Jury determined the results of research, findings and observations by the Grand Jury leads to the conclusion that a complete reorganization of Children and Family Services is needed. 

Multiple grand juries have repeatedly objected to the fact that there is no independent oversight committee to ensure CFS is held to task and as in the past the county explained DSS provides oversight. 

While the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Grand Juries did not independently investigate CFS, they did ensure responses were received and published the county’s responses to the recommendations made by the 2018-19 Grand Jury.  

The 2016 State Attorney General Investigation into SBC Children & Family Services    

On June 22, 2016, then California State Attorney General Kamala Harris announced an investigation into the San Bernardino County Department of Children & Family Services after receiving complaints alleging children were being repeatedly placed into abusive homes where they died or were severely abused.   

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The Black Voice News and IE Voice will continue to follow this story. Part 3 will seek answers to what happened to the investigation into San Bernardino County’s Department of Children and Family Services (CFS) announced by the CA State Attorney General in 2016. It will also examine how well the California Department of Social Services (DSS) is providing oversight to SBC CFS.

Author

  • Gail Fry is a legal assistant who acted as a self-appointed government watchdog in San Bernardino County during the early 2000s. Over those years she sought public records, was critical of county-paid benefits for state judges, expressed concern over the perceived creative financing for court construction and played a key role in the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s formal warning to former San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod for violating the Political Reform Act for failing to disclose ownership of several properties over many years. Fry then served eight years as a reporter for The Alpenhorn News, a biweekly newspaper covering the San Bernardino Mountain communities. Fry remains committed in her quest to hold government officials accountable to the people they represent through her articles in Moffatt Media, The IE Voice, Black Voice News and The San Bernardino American News, as well as her work with various law firms on issues she believes will shine a light on government corruption.

Gail Fry

Gail Fry is a legal assistant who acted as a self-appointed government watchdog in San Bernardino County during the early 2000s. Over those years she sought public records, was critical of county-paid benefits for state judges, expressed concern over the perceived creative financing for court construction and played a key role in the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s formal warning to former San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod for violating the Political Reform Act for failing to disclose ownership of several properties over many years. Fry then served eight years as a reporter for The Alpenhorn News, a biweekly newspaper covering the San Bernardino Mountain communities. Fry remains committed in her quest to hold government officials accountable to the people they represent through her articles in Moffatt Media, The IE Voice, Black Voice News and The San Bernardino American News, as well as her work with various law firms on issues she believes will shine a light on government corruption.