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When San Mateo County Judge Marta Diaz ordered social worker Barbara Byrne to be involved in the case of 2-year-old Ashley Marinda, county officials balked. The girl’s younger brother had allegedly been shaken to death by their father, and the supervising juvenile court judge felt Byrne knew the situation well. Diaz also agreed with Byrne’s recommendation that efforts be made to reunify the girl with her mother. But officials at the San Mateo County Human Services Agency argued that Diaz — who had harshly, and publicly, criticized the agency’s handling of the two kids’ situation — had overstepped her authority by specifying which social worker should be involved in the case. That kind of detail, they claimed, should be left with the agency. On Thursday, a three-justice panel on San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal seemed to agree with the county. Justice Lawrence Stevens appeared bothered by Diaz’s decision to go beyond ordering reunification services and identifying the specific social worker she wanted on the case. “If that’s not a violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine,” he asked, “where do you draw the line?” The power struggle comes in a tragic case that generated substantial media attention and resulted in the formation of a task force charged with examining the county’s entire child services program from the top down. On Dec. 26, 8-month-old Angelo Marinda was pronounced dead from shaken baby syndrome, following an unsupervised visit with his parents, at UC-San Francisco Medical Center. The child’s father, Ronnie, was charged with murder and assault four days later. In April, Diaz released a 54-page report, castigating the child welfare system for alleged incompetence and for ignoring all the warning signs that young Angelo was in danger. She also blamed herself for not being more vigilant. Diaz also took the rare step of throwing open the dependency proceedings for Angelo’s sister, 2-year-old Ashley, and exposing the system’s dirty laundry to the world. Then, Diaz, over the county’s objections, ordered Byrne to remain on the case, and to proceed with reunification efforts between the girl and her mother, Lady Rajan Diesta. Arguing for the mother’s interests on Thursday, Corte Madera solo practitioner Janet Sherwood told the justices that state Welfare and Institution Codes give juvenile court judges the power to order the county to place particular social workers on particular cases. “It’s not the county’s business. It’s the court’s business,” she argued. “[Social workers] are acting as agents of the juvenile court.” Even so, Justice Stevens continued to seem uncomfortable with the judge having such an insider role. “It’s clear the court did not have confidence in the [child services] department,” he said. “But in making her order, the argument is raised that the court is micromanaging.” Justice Mark Simons made the same point in later arguments, while Justice Barbara Jones remained silent throughout the short hearing. Sherwood maintained that state statutes give judges the right to micro-manage dependency cases “when the court feels it’s absolutely necessary to ensure that its orders are carried out.” She said Diaz wanted to make sure that the social worker in the case knew the family well and not react to political pressure. Sausalito solo Janet Saalfield, who represents the father’s interests and was participating by telephone, said state statutes even explicitly say that the judge shall order the social worker, not the agency, to provide services to a child. After the hearing, Sherwood said that the county agency is “drawing the line in the sand” in a jurisdictional battle prompted by its anger at the judge’s much-publicized criticism. Diaz has made similar orders in the past with no objections, Sherwood said. The difference this time, she said, was that Diaz’s order came about two months after her critical report. San Mateo Deputy County Counsel Michael Murphy, who wasn’t questioned during Thursday’s hearing, said later that he felt the argument went well for the county. “Certainly,” he said, “two of the justices, by their questions, indicated they appreciated the separation-of-powers argument.” Murphy also said the county saw this as a case that needs to be pursued because of its potential future impact. “It is the legal issue of who should be managing the human resources of the human services agency,” he said, “and our view is that is the agency itself.” The case is In re Ashley M., A104054.

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