When a 12-year-old girl with previously shoulder-length, rich, brown hair comes to school in tears -- trying to hide her freshly buzzed head under a hat -- adults should take notice.

In this case, school officials did take notice after a local mom shaved her daughter's head to punish her for lying. They called Child Protective Services.

But, ultimately, one key person, and the system overall, let that little girl down.

Pat Cheadle Director of Kern County Human Services, cleared the mom of any wrongdoing, chalking up the girl's distress to general teenager's angst over any change to their appearance.

Lets pause to digest that.

It's been a long time since I was a teenager, but even at my advanced age I can state with certainty that it would be far more devastating to a young girl to have her head shaved involuntarily than even getting a pimple just before class photos.

And the fact that the girl's own mother, who knew exactly how sensitive her daughter was about her appearance, would inflict such humiliation as discipline makes the act far worse.

Cheadle could not talk about this case in particular, but did speak in general about how the department handles abuse allegations.

"As a parent, is that a form of punishment I would use? No," Cheadle said. "But cutting of the hair, in and of itself, doesn't rise to the level of the legal definition of emotional abuse."

I disagree, and frankly, think Cheadle blew it on this one.

But this story is troubling on many other fronts as well.

The system itself was rigged against this girl from the start.

Because she is an adoptive child, not a foster kid, she had no representation, there was no psychological evaluation done to assess how damaging this act was to her and there was no mandatory counseling for her or her mother.

The public doesn't usually hear about such cases. Even when a child is killed, the details are shrouded in secrecy, ostensibly to protect the child. But I've long contended the confidentiality more often protects abusers and the system itself. This case confirmed my suspicions.

Acting out, anger and pain

The girl, we'll call her "Ella," is adopted. Ella's adoptive mom, whom I'll call "Sandy," became frustrated with Ella as the girl began acting out about a year before the head shaving incident. (I'm not using real names here, for obvious reasons, but I did contact "Sandy." She declined comment.)

The bad behavior began shortly after Sandy refused to tell Ella anything about her biological parents, according to a social worker's report.

Hmmm. Might that be the real problem?

Anyhow, in the realm of bad teenage behavior, most of Ella's transgressions were fairly mild. But they absolutely required attention.

Sandy told the social worker that Ella had been taking things that didn't belong to her -- her sister's iPod, Sandy's make up -- and lying about it. Ella forged Sandy's signature on two school referrals for rule violations.

Sandy said she'd even caught Ella shaking her 3-year-old sister.

Ella had been grounded, her privileges had been taken away and she was given extra chores. Sandy told the social worker she had even gone to the extreme of cutting Ella's hair as punishment at least once before, but only by a few inches.

Then Sandy found her mascara and eye shadow in Ella's backpack and Ella lied about it.

Sandy wasn't angry and didn't "snap," according to the report and later testimony.

She calmly brought Ella into the bathroom, had her lean over the sink, got out the clippers and buzzed all of Ella's hair off as the girl sobbed.

Ella was left with about an inch of uneven, dark brown fuzz covering her scalp. The next day,Sandy sent her off to school.

She did it, Sandy told the social worker, because she felt such a drastic act would finally get Ella's attention. Ella "prizes her hair most of all," Sandy said. The little girl was constantly combing and styling it.

She was "not trying to humiliate her, but her hair is all she cares about." Sandy admitted that she knew it would "piss her off," according to the social worker's report.

By the way, Sandy is a licensed foster parent.

Foster parents aren't allowed to cut a foster child's hair for any reason without express permission from the biological parent or social worker. I have to believe Sandy was familiar with that rule.

Ella cried when the social worker asked how she felt about her buzzed hair.

"I look like a boy," she said.

She confirmed that Sandy had cut her hair as punishment at least once before. Her offense that time was having used too much conditioner, Ella said.

The rest of the family -- father, sister and brother -- also confirmed Sandy had previously cut Ella's hair as punishment.

The social worker found the allegation of abuse "substantiated" and recommended, but could not mandate, counseling.

System failure

Sandy appealed that finding because, as she testified, it would have prevented her from working with children through her church.

Interestingly, a substantiated or inconclusive finding of abuse, which goes into a Department of Justice database, doesn't automatically revoke a foster care license. That would have to be done by another state agency in a separate investigation.

Back to the case at hand. The allegation of abuse was found substantiated by the social worker's supervisor and then went to a grievance review hearing.

Again, because Ella isn't a foster child, the system afforded her few rights.

Everyone at the hearing had a lawyer except Ella, who was called as a witness for Sandy.

Cheadle told me foster kids are assigned lawyers but the county isn't required to provide biological or adoptive kids an attorney, nor does it have the authority to do so.

I also wondered if Ella had to testify in front of Sandy and who did the questioning.

Cheadle couldn't be specific. But county policy requires a hearing officer to interview minors "off record" to determine if they're being coerced.

Ella's testimony was conducted with Sandy in the room, however, which I find extremely lame.

No kid is going to sit in front of their own parent and say, "My mom's a monster."

In fact, during the hearing, Sandy said she'd never before cut Ella's hair as punishment. Ella agreed even though she, Sandy and three other family members all told the social worker it had happened previously. Sure, they all could have been lying to the social worker. More likely, Ella was too intimidated to tell the truth at the hearing.

Stacking the deck

Hearing officer Jeff Mendoza pronounced the abuse allegation "inconclusive."

Shaving a kid's head has the potential to cause emotional abuse, he said, but whether it did was undetermined.

Mendoza, in his report, slammedthe county for not conducting a psychological evaluation and notdoing enough follow up to determine if Ella's anxiety over the buzz cut was intense and ongoing, the legal definition of emotional abuse.

But he knew full well the county had no authority to mandate a psych eval. And social workers, by law, have to make findings within 30 days of an allegation, not enough time to know if there was lasting harm.

It's a classic "Catch-22."

Finally, Mendoza wenton at length about Ella's behavior, which strikes me as blaming the victim.

Anyone familiar with teens will tell you Ella's behavior wasn't that far out and is particularly commonplace among foster kids and many adoptive children. Especially adoptive children having identity issues -- such those who've been refused information about their biological parents.

While I consider Mendoza's "inconclusive"finding extremely weak, Cheadle's final order of "unfounded" was worse.

Aside from equating head shaving to common teenage embarrassment, Cheadle also criticizedElla's behavior and took Sandy's word that sincegettingthe buzz cut the girl had beenon the straight and narrow.

There's been no follow up, no further interviews with Ella nor the school. This is all just coming from mom, who, by the way testified in the hearing that she felt "justified" in shaving her daughter's head.

Aside from that, is Cheadle suggesting that the ends justify the means when it comes to discipline? That's an awfully slippery slope.

Look, I'm not saying the mom should have gone to jail in this case.

But just like the mom said about shaving her kid's head, when you cross the line there are consequences.

Apparently, for 12-year-old girls, there are. But not adults.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com