L.A. County fielded numerous complaints before deaths of two children

L.A. County examines whether it could have better protected two kids killed in father's deliberate car crash

Over the last eight months, Los Angeles County social workers fielded repeated reports that Alan Dean Edwards' two children were in danger.

They opened investigations and let some complaints languish past the state's 30-day deadline, according to county records reviewed by The Times and interviews with officials familiar with the case.

Then came news that Edwards had died along with his 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter in a car crash this month. Sheriff's deputies believe the father — in the midst of a divorce and custody dispute — deliberately crashed his Honda Accord into a parked big rig on Interstate 5 in Castaic.

Officials with the Department of Children and Family Services are now reviewing whether Antelope Valley social workers could have done more to prevent the tragedy.

The children's mother declined to comment.

Authorities said Edwards, of Lancaster, picked up his son Eric Dean Edwards and daughter Alona Marie Edwards on Dec. 5, a Friday, as part of a custody agreement with his estranged wife. When he didn't drop the kids off Sunday, his wife filed a missing persons report.

The inquiries into the children's welfare were part of a flurry of reports received beginning in April, when allegations arose that the father was physically abusing the children. That initial report was ruled inconclusive. Another report the same month alleged sexual abuse of both children by an unknown perpetrator. That report was determined to be unfounded, according to case documents.

The investigations that were still open without resolution this month had been initiated in August when calls were made to the county's child abuse hotline, sources said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

More allegations were reported in September when someone called the hotline to say that both children were being abused by the father. County workers decided that those allegations also didn't warrant a full investigation, according to case documents.

In October, an allegation of neglect of a 17-year-old sibling was reported. and that investigation remained open this month, sources said.

In November, yet another allegation of sexual abuse by the father was called in. Again, department officials decided it didn't warrant investigation, sources said.

The father and mother had previously been under investigation by the department in 2007 and 2003. Some of those investigations also were determined to be inconclusive or unfounded. The disposition for others was not available, according to case documents.

Since 2003, the family was reported to the child abuse hotline 13 times, according to county records.

Even when an individual abuse allegation is inconclusive or unfounded, social workers are trained to pay attention to the number of complaints they receive, because it often correlates with the general risk of abuse. A recent study of California data showed that children who had been reported to the child abuse hotline were 51/2 times more likely to suffer intentional injury deaths compared with children who were never reported.

In an interview this week, Family Services Director Philip Browning said he was reviewing how the complaints were handled in the Edwards case but that no meaningful casework errors had been discovered so far.

"I'm pretty confident that most workers are removing children where they believe that there is a real safety concern for the child," Browning said, noting that no social workers have been placed on desk duty because of the Edwards case. "Child safety is job one."

The state's 30-day deadline to resolve investigations is arbitrary, Browning said, and some investigations take more time to thoroughly gather and evaluate evidence.

Browning said that some allegations submitted to the department are properly disregarded because they duplicate allegations already under investigation or they blatantly lack merit.

"In custody disputes for sure, there are often numerous referrals from one of the parents. Often, you will find that it's not valid and is just a way to gain custody of the child," Browning said. "I run across those more than I would hope."

But he was not ready to say that the investigations in the Edwards case remained open for good reasons, nor that other referrals were properly discarded without investigation, because the review is ongoing.

The department has struggled for years to close investigations in a timely manner, and a recent county review found that the backlog led to poor results for children because witnesses became unavailable and memories faded. In July 6,138 cases stretched beyond the one-month deadline, and 3,599 of those were open for more than two months without resolution.

The problem is most serious in areas of South Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, which includes the Lancaster office responsible for the Edwards case.

A spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said that the board recently approved hiring 450 new social workers and that Family Services officials should ensure that branch offices in outlying areas such as the Antelope Valley are fully staffed with trained employees.

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