The passage of SB 39 in 2007 seemed to University of San Diego School of Law professor Bob Fellmeth like an important step toward more effectively protecting California's most vulnerable children. Under the law, the record of any child's death from neglect or abuse is public - as is information about child welfare officials' prior knowledge of the case. (See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 10850.4.)
But the state Department of Social Services limited the mandatory reporting to deaths that occur at the hand of a parent. "We want it disclosed when a child dies of abuse and neglect no matter what," says Fellmeth, founder and executive director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at USD's School of Law. "We want whoever did it. The way the rules were then, if Mom's boyfriend kills the child, it doesn't have to be disclosed."
When Fellmeth couldn't get DSS to expand its rules voluntarily, he turned to Morrison & Foerster associate Steve Keane to help file a court challenge on behalf of a nonprofit working to prevent child abuse. (See Butterfield v. Lightbourne,
No. 37-2011- 00097858-CU-MC-CTL (San Diego Super. Ct., filed Sept. 14, 2011).) After the trial court found in January 2013 that the new disclosure rules were "inconsistent" with SB 39, the DSS initially appealed. But it settled in August. Lead counsel Keane says the resulting new statewide regulations, due this year, will greatly improve public disclosure of fatal child abuse.
"Although our client in the lawsuit was a concerned citizen, the ultimate beneficiaries are these kids who will hopefully start seeing the intervention that they need," says Keane, who took the case pro bono.