06/07/2012 12:09 pm ET

Danisha Smith Death: What Is The Fairview Developmental Center Hiding About Teen's Murder?

This story comes courtesy of California Watch.

By Ryan Gabrielson and Joanna Lin

In early 2009, a 16-year-old girl with mental retardation was slain at the Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County. The state-operated institution didn’t tell the public about the deadly assault.

After three years, the California Department of Public Health penalized Fairview in April for its role in the patient’s death, issuing a written citation and a $10,000 fine for failing to protect a patient from harm. The developmental center is required under state law to prominently display the citation for the public to see.

But the institution couldn’t produce a copy last week, administrators told a California Watch reporter who attempted to review the citation at Fairview.

The state Department of Developmental Services on Monday physically displayed the citation at the institution, one of five board-and-care centers for roughly 1,800 patients with cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities.

However, the department initially blacked out nearly every word. The fragments of visible text call the death an “an unusual occurrence.” On Tuesday night, state officials removed some of the redacted sections, revealing information about when unnamed center employees began or ended work the night of the murder.

The redactions black out details of how a teenage patient was strangled.

State public health officials contend the document must be redacted under the California Welfare and Institutions Code to protect patient confidentiality.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, disagreed with that legal interpretation.

“We’re talking about crimes; we’re not talking about medical services,” said Leno, who is sponsoring legislation this session regarding violent crimes at developmental centers. “This is an abuse of state law.”

Fairview’s penalty is for regulatory violations on Feb. 22, 2009, according to a state database of enforcement action, which matches the date and time of the slaying.

Late in the evening on that date, someone at Fairview assaulted Danisha Smith. Smith’s killer put a towel over her head and tied it off with a cord, blocking oxygen from Smith’s brain, according to her death certificate and interviews with law enforcement officials and Smith's relatives. An assailant repeatedly stabbed her in the chest with a pencil.

Smith died of brain swelling the next day.

The Office of Protective Services, an in-house police force at California’s developmental centers, conducted the criminal investigation into the killing. The state Department of Developmental Services runs the force.

The Costa Mesa Police Department had jurisdiction over the crime but deferred responsibility to Fairview’s detectives.

In a series of stories in February, California Watch reported that detectives and patrol officers at the institutions routinely fail to conduct basic police work, even when patients die under mysterious circumstances. The facilities have documented hundreds of cases of abuse and unexplained injuries, almost none of which have led to arrests.

Fairview police arrested another patient, Latina Ford, then 15, in Smith’s death. The Orange County District Attorney's Office charged Ford with murder in October 2010, the criminal court file shows.

She has pleaded not guilty. The courts ruled Ford incompetent to stand trial; the state is holding her at the Porterville Developmental Center.

Records from a civil lawsuit filed in February 2010 by Smith’s family indicate Ford was Smith’s roommate.

In response to California Watch’s stories, lawmakers have introduced two bills, SB 1051 and SB 1522, that would require the state to notify outside law enforcement agencies and disability rights groups when it receives allegations of violent crimes against patients. SB 1522 – which Leno sponsored – is intended to direct investigation of serious crimes at developmental centers to outside police agencies.

The bills have passed the state Senate and await hearings in the state Assembly.

Leno said the public should receive information about such violent crimes. “We need to learn more to see if there’s need for further legislative attention,” he said.

The state Department of Public Health, which licenses and regulates developmental centers, first reported Smith’s death this year, issuing a “class A” citation on April 19. To earn a class A citation, a facility must put a patient at risk of serious harm or death; class AA citations are for incidents where regulators determine a facility is directly responsible for a death.

Developmental centers must post class A and AA citations in “an area accessible and visible to members of the public” for 120 days, states California Health and Safety Code 1429.

A California Watch reporter visited Fairview on May 30. In Fairview’s administration building lobby, the institution’s only public space, a state workplace safety award plaque was on display but not the citation.

When the reporter inquired about the violation record, Fairview administrators initially said they were unsure they had a copy. They then required the reporter to file a records request with the department’s media relations office in Sacramento.

The reporter pointed out that state law requires immediate public access. Robin Keller, Fairview’s privacy officer, dismissed the argument and said a typical member of the public would not be aware of the document or the law.

Fairview displayed the citation from April 19 to May 2, when a “plan of correction for the citation had been implemented,” Nancy Lungren, spokeswoman for the state Department of Developmental Services, said in a written statement.

The institution is posting a heavily redacted version of the record for 120 days to correct the error, Lungren wrote. It shows only excerpts regarding nurse shift change procedures and nighttime inspections of patient quarters.

The only unobscured sentence indicating an act of violence occurred notes that an Office of Protective Services detective, who was "working overtime as a patrol officer, responded to the residence on 2-22-09 at 2257 (10:57 PM)." The rest of the paragraph is blacked out.

Ryan Gabrielson covers public safety for California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Joanna Lin is an investigative reporter focusing on K-12 education for California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. To read more California Watch stories, click here.