California Attorney General Report of Investigation of People’s Temple

Among the investigations conducted after the deaths in Jonestown was one ordered by the California Attorney General into the responsibility – or lack thereof – which state and country welfare officials exercised over the children who went to Guyana. While much of the report focused on children in foster care or guardianship status, it did note on several occasions that the state has authority to protect all children from neglect and abuse.

As a secondary aspect, the report considered whether Peoples Temple had engaged in fraud by diverting funds from state welfare recipients into its own coffers to fund the agricultural project in Guyana.

The report was published in April 1980, and reprinted in December 1981 with numeerous corrections. The version published here is the corrected copy.

The context for the report – the fundamental understanding for everyone involved in the process – was that the investigation was made, not only in the aftermath of the deaths in November 1978, but also after the allegations of mistreatment by Peoples Temple of children and adults alike in the news media (especially the New West article of August 1977) . While that context undoubtedly colored the descriptions of the problems along the way that prevented or precluded various federal, state and county authorities from exercising their duties, the report concluded that “it cannot be said, with any reasonable degree of conviction, that the disaster in Jonestown would have been averted at the Department of Social Services requested the Embassy to monitor the well-being of the children at Jonestown. The scale of death and horror at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, would have been almost unimaginable prior to the occurrence.”

Nevertheless, the investigation determined that few concrete actions were taken by state and county welfare officials in the 18 months leading up to the Jonestown tragedy. Much of that inaction was attributed to one or more of the following reasons, as federal and state agency officials described their conversations and meetings with one another:

• expressing different memories of the same conversations;
• pleading lack of jurisdiction and/or resources to pursue a matter;
• shifting the responsibility to follow-up on allegations of abuse and neglect to other agencies and administrators;
• presenting bureaucratic hurdles that prevented effective follow through (including an overall reorganization of the state agency responsible for oversight in mid-1978);
• describing Catch-22 situations that blocked effective oversight;
• reading a subtext that the Peoples Temple situation was too political – that the Temple itself had enough friends in higher places – to regulate it effectively.

As an example of a Catch-22 situation: The state of California learned early on that “the State Department had no list of persons in Guyana as there was no requirement for Americans in Guyana to register or otherwise identify themselves United States Government personnel.” State officials then asked State for copies of passports to review them for the names of children in foster or guardianship status. State replied that it could not release the passports, due to privacy concerns, but that if the California agency provided the names of children it its programs, it would check them against the passport list. The state replied there were 17,000 names on that list, at which point, “the passport officer became reluctant to proceed.”

The lack of any registry plagued all efforts to monitor or exercise any authority the state might have had over the children of Jonestown.

Despite various administrative snafus, however, the findings refute many of the allegations made about the number of foster children who were ever in the Temple’s care, or who went to Guyana, or who died there. Citing a study by the Department of Social Services of the Jonestown death list, for example, the investigation identified “19 tentative foster children… Our investigation shows one of the 19 was an adult and only one child was on active foster care in Guyana, but survived. As to the remaining 17 children, their foster care status terminated prior to their emigration to Guyana. All of these 17 children died in Guyana.”

The report did find, however, that “People’s Temple was utilizing the guardianship law to evade foster care licensing requirements.” The regulations awarding guardianship status are less stringent that those for foster care, and they were in transition with changes in the law. Even so, the state had failed to follow the few obligations for oversight that it did have, even after stories critical of Peoples Temple began circulating in the press. There were 22 minor wards under guardianship status in Guyana. All died on November 18.

Other issues, such as whether reports of child abuse or neglect – whether during the Temple’s California years or in Guyana – were not pursued. Under Department of Social Services mandates and guidelines – whether a child is in foster care, under guardianship, or with his/her natural parents – “allegations of abuse created a presumption of need requiring prompt investigation. The same regulation provides that the presumption of need for protective services continues until an assessment is made the child is no longer in need of protection. Here, a presumption of need for protective services arose which was incompletely discharged.”

At the same time, the investigation noted, “it appears no child was taken to Guyana without the permission of at least one parent or guardian.”

The Attorney General investigation also reiterated earlier findings, by the Department of Social Services as well as several counties, that “All cases of welfare fraud uncovered by the counties were fraud perpetrated by individuals for personal gain and were not part of any conspiracy by People’s Temple to finance its operations by fraudulently obtaining public monies.”

California Attorney General Report of Investigation of People’s Temple (text)
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Originally posted on January 14th, 2020.

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