On Jan. 18, 2012, at the end of a long day of medical testimony, “John Doe” took the stand in 2nd District juvenile courtroom in Farmington.
In early 2011, Doe’s daughter had been investigated by the Division of Child & Family Services over allegations of child abuse. On the stand, Doe recalled a DCFS investigator coming to his daughter’s house unannounced in late spring 2011. “She was going to take the children from the house and very possibly put them up for adoption,” Doe testified. “Do you think that caught my attention? Do you think I wanted to call somebody? You bet I did.”
So, he told the court, he called his friend Greg Bell. Now serving as Utah’s lieutenant governor, Bell had been a powerful figure in Davis County, as former mayor of Farmington and Republican state senator for Fruit Heights.
But Doe knew Bell in a different capacity. Not only had they been neighbors, but they had shared ecclesiastical duties at an LDS ward. “We certainly know and respect each other,” he went on to say. They were acquaintances, he clarified, not “bosom buddies.”
Bell, the man continued, told him he couldn’t interfere in the case because of the separation between the executive and the judicial branches of government.
But Bell, according to Doe’s testimony, was sufficiently concerned by what Doe told him that he initiated an audit of the case on the taxpayer’s dime while DCFS was investigating the child-abuse allegations—which were not of a sexual nature—and the Attorney General’s Office was preparing to take the case to trial.
Doe recalled Bell telling him, “ ‘Just for myself, I want to see how this comes out.’ I said, ‘Great, we don’t have anything to fear. Please do it.’ ”
DCFS had investigated Doe’s daughter once before over similar allegations in 2008. The agency had made supported findings of abuse and worked a volunteer plan for a year with her and her husband so the children could safely remain at home. However, according to court testimony, weeks after DCFS closed its case, the mother’s concerning behavior began again.
City Weekly requested access to audio recordings of the hearings. Judge Andrus granted that access conditioned upon keeping private information about Doe’s daughter and her children confidential.
Despite Bell’s intervention, the judge would eventually rule that the children be placed in DCFS custody. Bell’s audit did not lead to the outcome that Doe sought nor did it lead to any changes at DCFS.
A high-ranking state official applies pressure on a state agency as a favor to a friend and doesn’t get his way—it shows the system works. Shouldn’t that be the end of the story? It might have been had the audit not been mysteriously “recalled.” The auditors allegedly took back from DCFS every copy of the audit or had them shredded.
Up until the time that City Weekly, acting on a tip, requested a copy of the audit—also termed in state e-mails at one stage as “an informal review”—no mention or evidence of the audit existed in the public realm. Much of the audit that City Weekly eventually did receive was blacked out, or in records parlance, “redacted.”
This is despite the fact that staff from the Governor’s Office directed auditors to tell caseworkers that the records they were seeking “are necessary for the proper performance of a review that will produce a public benefit greater than any intrusions on personal privacy rights.”
Most Utahns have heard a heart-rending DCFS story. City Weekly itself has reported on a number of stories where parents claim to have unfairly lost custody of their children to an implacable state agency. And while any constituent can contact his or her legislator with such a concern hoping they will intercede on their behalf, Bell, as a member of the executive branch, having a personal interest in a specific DCFS investigation seems to be unique.
According to the lieutenant governor’s website and other official documents describing the role of the office, supervising state elections is the lieutenant governor’s chief responsibility. The Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees DCFS, answers to the Governor’s Office.
All the same, the Governor’s Office had no problem with Bell’s call for an audit. According to an e-mail from spokeswoman Ally Isom, Utah’s constitution “contemplates that the Lieutenant Governor will provide the Governor advice on ‘policies, programs, administrative and personnel matters,’ while Section 67-1a-3 gives the Lieutenant Governor the authority to employ personnel to help him carry out those duties.”
She continues, “It is more than appropriate for the Lieutenant Governor, in the course of advising the Governor, to commission an audit to ensure that a state agency is following its internal policies and procedures. State taxpayers are well served by ensuring state agencies comply with policies and procedures.”
Bell, who’s standing for re-election in November alongside Gov. Gary Herbert, proved more reticent to opine on the audit. Through his chief of staff, Cody Stewart, Bell declined City Weekly’s request for an interview.
That silence doesn’t surprise several sources close to this story’s events who requested anonymity due to concerns over retaliation before they would talk. They argue that the sole motive of Bell’s audit was to make DCFS back away from the family investigation.
The average citizen’s path to redress with regards to child welfare cases is somewhat lengthy. DHS spokesperson Elizabeth Sollis explains the choices an aggrieved parent has to register his or her concerns regarding a DCFS case are first with the caseworker, then a DCFS constituent services specialist, followed by, if the parent is still unhappy, the Office of Child Protection ombudsman, then the head of DHS and finally “their legislator, committee members of the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel, or the Governor’s Office.”
John Doe had a far more direct route. In his court testimony, Doe said he called his friend Greg Bell, “to give him advice, to recommend an attorney.”
Initially, Doe said, Bell talked to Department of Human Services director Palmer DePaulis, a former Salt Lake City mayor, who oversees DCFS.
DePaulis tells City Weekly that Bell was “really, really concerned,” that “there could be issues in DCFS practices that were not right.” DePaulis says he tried to reassure Bell. “Our policies looked OK to me.”
In a June 25, 2011, e-mail from Bell to DePaulis marked “HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL AND PERSONAL,” Bell wrote, “I’m just not buying it, Palmer. I’m not saying all is well, but I feel very unsettled. The stakes are so high—[redacted]. This administration cannot be party to any rushed proceedings which do not give [redacted] every legitimate protection.” Bell urged DePaulis to “think about an independent expert evaluation.” He concluded, “I’ve emphasized things in [redacted] e-mail which give me serious pause.”
Doe said Bell asked his staff to investigate “some things” and report back. What were those things, Assistant Attorney General Laura Thompson asked Doe on the stand. “He told me it was apparent that there was a presumption of guilt without ever looking into possible innocence and that concerned him,” Doe replied.
Several weeks later, Bell told Doe he felt “enough concern that this case is not being handled properly that I have commissioned an independent audit to look into the circumstance surrounding this investigation.”
Legislators routinely request performance audits of the operations of state agencies that constituents or others have expressed concerns about. And DCFS routinely faces audits, which, according to DePaulis, typically focus on policies and procedures. A 2011 performance audit into DCFS, the findings of which the agency agreed with in its entirety, is available on the Utah general auditor’s website.
While DePaulis labeled Bell’s audit as one of many his department routinely faces, his agency’s January 2012 response to the audit suggests a degree of alarm. At the conclusion of its response, DHS noted, “Finally, we express our concern about the purpose, scope and timing of this audit.”
After further redactions, DHS noted, “[the audit’s] scope is inadequate to form any meaningful conclusion about Utah practice in [redacted] cases.” It concluded, “We believe that the audit does not accurately portray an understanding of DCFS investigation and policies regarding the handling of [redacted].”
The audit itself has not been released to the public. When City Weekly requested a copy of the audit from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, it came so heavily redacted that much of it is simply a sea of black. Audit
The position DHS and DCFS were placed in by the audit was at best uncomfortable. According to heavily redacted e-mails between Bell and DePaulis, Bell both drove the audit and leaned on DHS chief DePaulis to personally investigate claims Bell was concerned about. Bell also forwarded an e-mail “from a source near the family” to auditor David Pulsipher. According to several sources, auditors were in and out of the local DCFS offices handling the case for six weeks or more.
While the audit recommended adopting practices used in other states, what is not clear, because of the redactions, is whether it specifically addressed the merits of the investigation into John Doe’s daughter, the case that had originally piqued Bell’s curiosity.
The second child-abuse investigation by DCFS into John Doe’s daughter began in April 2011, when one of the children’s doctors referred the mother to Child Protective Services, part of DCFS, over concerns of child abuse. A DCFS investigator later told the court that she’d interviewed one of the children at school. The mother arrived at the school and agreed to meet the investigator at home. There, the investigator recalled, she was “near hysterical, crying. She did not understand why this was coming up again. She truly felt she had done nothing wrong.”
Interviews with doctors and school authorities “were consistent with all the information we had gathered that [the abuse] was escalating,” a DCFS investigator told the court, which led to the agency petitioning for state custody of the children in June 2011. Judge Andrus issued an interim protective-services order granting DCFS access to both the family’s home and to the children.