A branch of the California Attorney General’s Office has launched a large-scale investigation into how Humboldt County government handles the abuse and neglect of minors.

The investigation is being conducted by the Bureau of Children’s Justice, a division of the attorney general’s office formed last year by AG Kamala Harris and charged with upholding the legal rights of California children.

Many details of the bureau’s investigation — such as what it is after and what prompted it — are still unknown, but it appears sweeping and systemic. Last month, it subpoenaed the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services for five years’ worth of a wide variety of documents, including specific details on every child abuse case handled by the county in that time, departmental policies on the reporting of such cases, and even all internal communications between staff members that touched on certain topics.

Though the bureau’s request for documents is wide, it appears in parts to focus specifically on the Department of Health and Human Services’ relationship with local tribal entities and native youth, and also on youth who may have been abused while in the Department of Health and Human Services’ custody.

So far county government has declined to comply with the bureau’s subpoena, and have gone so far as to ask a local court to quash it. On March 17, Assistant County Counsel Blair Angus petitioned the local juvenile court to stay the bureau’s subpoena on the grounds that the attorney general’s office has no legal right to petition such sensitive data. The county counsel’s office argued that the bureau’s request was “overbroad” and “exceed[ed] the regulatory power of the Attorney General.”

The attorney general’s office countered that the county’s petition was improper on a couple of grounds — it was filed at the wrong time and in the wrong court, wrote a deputy attorney general. On Friday, the court agreed with the state, and so the subpoena is still in effect.

A representative of the attorney general’s office today told the Outpost that though this isn’t the first investigation by the newish Bureau of Children’s Justice — founded in February 2015 — it is the first to have gone public, because of the county’s attempt to stop it in court.

While she declined to speak to the specific impetus for her office’s investigation into Humboldt County’s child welfare infrastructure, the attorney general’s office staffer we spoke to — who asked not to be named — said that the office has set out broad policies for how it goes about identifying cases to pursue: They come from tips from the general public, complaints from civil rights or advocacy groups and/or independent data analysis that can identify child abuse “outliers” in different areas of the state.

A post on the legal blog “Turtle Talk” this morning took note of the investigation, and of the county’s fight to quash the subpoena, and saw hints that it may relate to an item much in the news lately — the controversy, in some states, over the implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that is designed to make it more difficult to separate Native American children from the custody of members of their tribe. (Time Magazine had a feature on the ICWA earlier this week.)

The attorney general’s office representative we spoke to earlier declined to speak to whether or not that was a specific focus of its Humboldt County investigation, but allowed that the data it had subpoenaed could speak to questions concerning the county’s compliance with the ICWA. “In any investigation, we look to conduct a full and impartial investigation of all the facts,” she said.

Representatives of the county counsel’s office, the county administrative office and the Department of Health and Human Services declined to take questions from the Outpost on the investigation today. A DHHS public information officer sent us the following written statement:

Unfortunately, details of the investigations of child welfare services and the records of the California Attorney General are strictly confidential so the department simply cannot comment on specifics at this time. Nevertheless, we can affirm our commitment to the welfare of children in Humboldt County as well as our determination to work collaboratively with tribes to ensure that all allegations of abuse and neglect are promptly investigated and that families receive culturally appropriate services.