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Flawed county system lets children die invisibly

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Miguel Padilla ran away from a licensed group home in April 2008, but he didn't go far.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the 17-year-old amputee made his way to a stand of trees near the main driveway. Using his one arm, he climbed into the branches, tied a makeshift noose to a limb and hanged himself.

Nine days passed before a staffer found his body at the sprawling LeRoy Haynes Center in LaVerne, coroner's records show -- and then only by chance.

"To our knowledge there was no search by LeRoy's or any other authority," said Dave Rentz, the boy's minister.

Miguel Padilla died much as he had lived: alone and out of sight, his suicide the final step in a failed journey through Los Angeles County's child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

At least 268 children who had passed through the child welfare system died from January 2008 through early August 2009, according to internal county records obtained by The Times. They show that 213 were by unnatural or undetermined causes, including 76 homicides, 35 accidents and 16 suicides.

Eighteen of the fatalities were deemed the direct result of abuse or neglect by a caregiver, subjecting them to public disclosure under a recent state law aimed at prevention.

But Miguel and many others perished all but invisibly, their deaths attracting little or no public scrutiny.

Through interviews and previously confidential records, The Times examined his death and that of Lazhanae Harris, a 13-year-old girl slain in March. Both underscore systemic failings, particularly the risks of losing track of abused kids as they commit crimes and "cross over" to the justice system, or as they move through multiple state-licensed homes.

Together, they also illustrate the range of flaws in a system in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can't or won't care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better -- and are sometimes worse.

Trish Ploehn, director of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, said such deaths, though horrific, do not represent the vast majority of the thousands of cases her agency handles each year.

"The tragic lives and deaths of Miguel and Lazhanae only begin to scratch the surface of the extremely difficult, complex and complicated family circumstances that DCFS social workers are faced with every day," Ploehn said.

"It is very rare for a child to die of abuse or neglect while in the care or under the supervision of DCFS," she added, "and we consistently work to perfect our performance to help keep children safe, even after they leave our protection and supervision."

Ploehn said efforts are under way to improve collaboration between juvenile justice and child welfare officials and to intervene swiftly in the lives of troubled families.

By almost any measure, Miguel's life would fit the definition of mistreatment: He was abandoned by his mother, largely neglected by his father and left to struggle with untreated medical problems and depression most of his life.

By the time he died, however, he'd broken the law and moved from the care of the county's children's services department to that of its Probation Department, which oversees 20,000 juvenile offenders.

Up to half have a history with the child welfare agency, Probation Department Director Robert Taylor said. Ploehn said the proportion was far lower.

In Miguel's case, interviews and records show, the county failed him time and again -- not finding him a stable home, not addressing emotional problems that contributed to his delinquency, not even looking for him when he disappeared.

When the County Children's Commission, a panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors, took the extraordinary step of reviewing Miguel's death and four others among abused children on probation last year, it found "serious and consistent deficiencies" in their care. Four were suicides and one died of disease.

"Had the system met its responsibilities, the committee believes that some of these suicidal youth might have made healthier choices and the fifth might have had his health complaints acted upon more timely," the commission said in a confidential draft report prepared for county supervisors and obtained by The Times.

The draft was never issued in final form.

Abandoned at 10

Miguel Angel Padilla Jr. was born in February 1991 at a Sylmar hospital and later moved with his family to Mexico, where he had two accidents that would shape his life.

When he was about 9, he touched a metal rod to a power line while playing on an apartment building rooftop. He was seriously burned and lost his right arm below the elbow. He later lost the sight in his left eye when a firecracker shattered a pop bottle in his face.

At age 10, he lost his mother, who took his three siblings to Texas and started a new life without him, according to interviews and child welfare records obtained through a court petition.

"Minor's mother left him when he was little and has never made any attempt to visit or call," a social worker's report noted in August 2004.

Shortly after Miguel's mother left, the boy and his father, Miguel Padilla Sr., moved back to Southern California, to the Santa Clarita Valley community of Newhall.

The father worked odd jobs and spent much of his time in Mexico. The boy was raised mainly by his elderly paternal great-grandmother, Maria Arriaga Hernandez, who by all accounts, including her own, was ill-equipped to care for him.

"She had no real control," said Rentz, a minister who was close to the family, "but she provided the best she could."

The family first came to the attention of the children's services department in April 2003, when social workers substantiated allegations that Miguel's father had neglected the 12-year-old's medical, dental and emotional needs.

Their report cited the father's "lack of cooperation," poverty and limited job skills. Records also noted Miguel's suicidal tendencies, which his father attributed to ridicule from other children about his disability.

"Miguel sometimes seems to have a hard time processing information," a follow-up report stated, adding that he used poor judgment and seemed depressed.

Records show that Arriaga, then in her late 80s, went to Mexico with his father for long stretches, leaving the boy with friends or relatives.

Although social workers visited regularly and drafted a mandatory action plan, even its clearest goals -- to get Miguel to school regularly and to get him a prosthetic arm -- were never achieved, documents show.

Arriaga told social workers repeatedly that she had trouble comprehending what they said, even though they spoke Spanish. On the signature line of the parenting plan, she scratched an X.

Even so, there is no evidence that the children's services department tried to remove the boy and find him a more stable environment.

When a reporter visited Arriaga recently at her apartment in Newhall, she referred questions to Miguel Sr., 45.

In an interview, he acknowledged that he lives much of the time in Mexico, where he has two other children. He was unable to drive Miguel to his appointments, he said, because he'd lost his license and was jailed for driving under the influence.

But he denied that he neglected his son or that the boy was emotionally troubled. He suspects foul play in the death, not suicide.

"My son didn't have no problems," Padilla said. "He was just a fighter, that's all, and when I wasn't around for a while he got away from his grandma. She's old and she couldn't handle him too good."

Child welfare records paint a bleaker portrait, saying Miguel sometimes refused to eat and locked himself in the bathroom for hours, crying. At school, he'd skip recess.

"He said at school he stays in the classroom because he can't make friends, except for the second or third graders because they are nicer to him," a social worker wrote in June 2004, when he was 13.

That spring, Miguel was measured for a prosthetic arm he desperately wanted. Months later, he had to be re-measured; he'd missed so many appointments his size had changed.

Meanwhile, he wore a down jacket to hide his disability, said Denise Tomey, executive director of the Carousel Ranch in Santa Clarita, where he spent six months in a riding program for disabled kids.

"He had no self esteem," Tomey said in an interview. "He walked with his head down and he wore that heavy jacket, even if it was 105 degrees out. He thought people judged him because he was missing an arm."

Tomey and Rentz both remembered the boy showing a softer side, such as when he helped other kids at the ranch learn to ride and groom horses.

"I have a heart," he told a probation officer in March 2006. "I care about people. When I have opportunity to do something really bad I think about it."

But he also had a penchant for trouble: He faced charges for allegedly threatening and assaulting a teacher. He also was accused of burglarizing a home, vandalizing cars and tagging a fence with gang graffiti.

Cumulatively the charges were enough to land Miguel in the care of the Probation Department and in a succession of juvenile hall and group home placements.

Along the way, probation reports show, he joined a Newhall gang; picked up the nicknames "Little Shadow" and "Lefty"; and told authorities he used marijuana and alcohol. He liked school but was "not that smart," he said, and during one stretch of heavy absenteeism he pulled straight Fs.

By May 2006, his great-grandmother was overwhelmed. "I cannot take him," she told probation officials. "He is not well. He asks me to make him well. . . . He yells out loud to me, 'Cure me.' "

Miguel spent the last two years of his life in multiple placements, running away at least once before going to the Haynes Center. One probation report called him "a continual behavior problem."

While Miguel was in juvenile detention, psychiatrist Saul Niedorf concluded that the boy's impulse control had been impaired by brain damage from the electrocution. Until then, apparently, no one had considered that possibility.

Niedorf recommended a "structured, therapeutic setting" for Miguel, and he was sent to the Haynes Center, which is licensed to house 72 boys, in January 2008.

The day after his last court hearing that month, his father and great-grandmother left for Mexico, asking a social worker to visit him in their absence. In a March 2008 letter seeking official permission to stop by, the social worker said Miguel had had no weekend visitors for two months.

"I have been informed that the minor has been struggling lately and I believe he may benefit from the interaction," she wrote.

A month later he hanged himself.

Taylor, the county's probation chief, defended his department's handling of the case but acknowledged that the death highlighted the need to better understand why so many children who pass through the child welfare system end up in the care of his agency.

In hindsight, Taylor said, it might have been better if Miguel at a much earlier age had been placed with someone other than his elderly great-grandmother.

"Finding someone who would have been a better caregiver might have resulted in a different outcome," he said. "You just don't know."

As for youngsters who go AWOL from Probation, Taylor said, about 300 were missing at the time Miguel disappeared and he doesn't have the staff to track them down.

Dan Maydeck, president and chief executive of the LeRoy Haynes Center, declined to comment, citing legal and contractual restrictions.

Miguel's death signifies a much broader problem, said Miriam Long, a Los Angeles deputy mayor who worked on children's issues as an aide to former county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke.

"A lot of these kids have mental health problems that should have been addressed much earlier in their lives," she said. "Without sounding too much like a bleeding heart liberal, because I'm not one, they could have been redeemed."

But Long said they can be difficult, and many adults would rather not deal with them.

"The teachers were happy when they were finally washed out and gone," Long said. "DCFS was happy when they were gone to Probation, and Probation was glad they were gone and went AWOL."

Before her retirement last year, Burke got board approval to have Probation search for AWOL children and report any deaths confidentially to supervisors.

Seeing no action, her successor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, got the board last month to reiterate Burke's order.

"They don't get it," he said of the department.

Tomey, the ranch director, knows only that children like Miguel can be helped.

"He really was one of those kids that, if he'd been in the right situation, he would have ended up being a totally different person," she said.

"His life could have turned out OK, or not. Tragically, it did not."

kim.christensen@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times database editor Doug Smith contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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