Case Studies

Riverside County Adopts Larson’s Recommendations to Improve Foster Care Systems

Child Playing Hopscotch

“While there are many examples of dedicated Riverside County personnel succeeding despite the systemic obstacles in their way, there are too many other examples of falling short or even failing outright.”

— Larson Report

After being rescued from captivity and abuse in their Perris, Calif. home, the 13 Turpin children endured further abuse from their foster families while under the care of Riverside County (the “County”). The poor treatment provided to the children, later highlighted in an ABC News special, caused the County to launch an investigation into its social service agencies and related care departments. Larson partners Stephen G. Larson and Hilary Potashner were retained as lead counsel in the eight-month investigation that garnered national media attention.

The Background

The Turpin children were found on Jan. 14, 2018, being abused and held captive by their parents in their Perris, Calif. home after 17-year-old Jordan Turpin escaped and called the police. The 13 children, ranging from ages 2-29, were taken into the custody of Riverside County — with minors going into foster homes and adults going under the watch of the Public Guardian’s office. Award-winning ABC show “20/20” aired a special about this case in November 2021 in which some of the children, now adults, explained how they were unable to access the services and money promised to them while in the care of the County. Some children claimed that they struggled to find money for food despite having hundreds of thousands of dollars raised on their behalf after their very public escape. Some even attested to having faced assault and further abuse while in custody.

Following the ABC special, the County retained Larson in October 2021 to “conduct an independent and comprehensive investigation into what happened in the cases of the 13 Turpin children…specifically, as it related to the recent allegations regarding the care, services, and placement provided to the 13 Turpin siblings by Riverside County departments,” ABC News reported. Partners Stephen G. Larson and Hilary Potashner led this investigation and assured the County of their commitment to conduct a “thorough and transparent” examination into the Turpin children’s level of care and supervision while under the custody of the County.

Upon being retained as lead counsel, Stephen told The Press-Empire that “before accepting this engagement nearly three weeks ago, I required that the County give my firm complete freedom to pursue all relevant issues in this inquiry.” Stephen and Hilary had two primary objectives for this investigation: one, “identifying and scrutinizing” the Turpin children’s care under the County’s supervision; and two, examining “the quality of the Riverside County services for all children in foster care and dependent adults.”

The Investigation

When the investigation was announced in Oct. 2021, the findings were expected to be ready by March 2022. Larson’s comprehensive investigative team included UC Berkeley’s social welfare and public policy schools, the UCLA School of Public Affairs, and Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Development and Family Science to guarantee a well-rounded and informed analysis of their findings. In a presentation about the ongoing case, Hilary shared that their team “had reviewed more than 2,600 pages of documents and interviewed more than 85 people…besides two Turpin children, those interviewed include 37 Children’s Services Division employees, 11 Public Guardian staff members, and two District Attorney’s Office employees.”

One month prior to the report deadline, in a probate court hearing on Feb. 24, the Larson team revealed that they had been denied access to essential records and consequently had to delay releasing the report. In her presentation, Hilary explained, “Because of numerous confidentiality protections and protective sealing orders…we have been required to make and continue to make court appearances. Our analysis cannot be complete without a review of all documents. The process of acquisition is slow but moving. We’re hopeful records will soon be released by the Superior Court.”

Presenting to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors

After an exhaustive eight-month investigation of the County’s services provided to the Turpin children, the Larson team consisting of Stephen G. Larson, Hilary Potashner, Andrew J. Bedigian, and Jonathan Gershon, published a 634-page report on July 8, 2022. Over the course of the investigation, the Larson team interviewed more than 100 individuals, including County personnel, stakeholders from partner agencies, and social services recipients, to document their experiences with County agencies. They also surveyed almost 300 County staff members, whose experiences and perspectives were essential to understanding how the systems operate to provide services to children and adults in need.  

Stephen and Hilary presented their findings to the County Board of Supervisors on July 12, during which they provided a comprehensive overview of both the positive and negative findings of the County’s social services detailed in their report. Stephen recognized the County employees, “who are passionate about protecting at-risk children and adults despite systemic hurdles,” but also identified the 40% vacancy rate of caseworkers as a major hindrance, stating “I could not run my law firm with a 40% vacancy rate.”

“It was hard-hitting and accurate”

— District Attorney Mike Hestrin, on reading Larson’s report

The report noted that none of the money earned on behalf of the Turpin children was “misappropriated or misused by the County,” and that instead, the children had difficulty accessing these resources because of “complicated and confusing legal proceedings.” They also found that while County personnel were “personally and professional committed to their work,” they faced obstacles to performance including high caseloads and turnover rates, which left substantial room for improvement in the areas of communication and coordination across County departments. Ultimately, the Larson team’s findings concluded that while “there were many times over the last four years that the Turpin children received the care they needed from the County…this was not always the case, and all too often the social services system failed them.”

To address these shortcomings, the report provides “practical and actionable recommendations” that the County can implement to improve the treatment of children and adults under its care, through a combination of policy and procedural changes. Stephen and Hilary note that their “recommendations strive to take into account the many policy constraints impacting the County and the reality that so many clients come to services from places of instability and trauma,” making them both realistic and achievable.  In a vote of 4-0, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously moved to follow the recommendations provided in the Larson team’s report.

“We spent a lot of money on (the report), and you (Larson) delivered.”

— Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries

A Brighter Future Ahead

While the investigation highlighted areas for improvement within the County’s departments, it also instigated statewide policy changes to address these areas. On Sept. 23, 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that allows adult and child protective services to share information about clients and their families. This came following the County’s adoption of the recommendations to improve communication between social service agencies provided in Larson’s report. This bill will assure that vulnerable children and adults across the state of California receive the support and services they need by allowing for a more streamlined information-sharing process.

“We believe our recommendations are achievable and, if implemented, will promote excellence in practice.”

— Larson Report

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