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Police Propose to Break Child Abuse ‘Cycle’ With 25-Man Unit

Times Staff Writer

The injury report sat on Detective Jim Brown’s desk for 17 days before he got around to handling it. There was nothing stunning about the case, Brown said, simply a matter of a father in the San Fernando Valley complaining that his ex-wife had injured their 5-year-old daughter through “excessive discipline.”

Other police matters took priority until Brown, a child-abuse investigator assigned to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys Division, found time to talk to the father and daughter and tell the mother to “straighten out.”

The child had what Brown would refer to only as “a rather unique injury,” but he would not describe it out of considerations for privacy.

He then referred the case to county authorities and lost track of it.

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Threat of Suicide

Then, about two months later, the case took a sudden turn when the mother’s older daughter, an 8-year-old, called Brown and said she was going to kill herself because of the way her mother was mistreating her.

Police responded quickly this time. Detectives questioned the mother and decided to have the daughter put in a foster home to protect her from further abuse.

That was the last contact Brown had with members of the family, and today, more than two years later, he has no idea what has happened to them.

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(As is usual with juvenile court cases, the records are not available to the public.)

Such cases, which typically go to the bottom of a detective’s in-basket, would get a quicker response under a police proposal that officials hope will have a dramatic affect on both tracking down and preventing child abuse.

$1 Million Experiment

After nearly a year of study, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates is asking the City Council to approve a yearlong, $1-million experiment to create a 25-member police unit that will work out of the Valley and South Los Angeles and concentrate solely on immediate child abuse investigations.

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The officers will be assigned to respond immediately to all reports of a child being injured, by either a parent or another family member. While criminal cases will continue to be handled as they are now, the new team will follow up non-criminal cases--the majority--and strongly recommend that the family seek counseling through a service that has recently been made available to police.

The request has received the unanimous support of the Los Angeles Police Commission, and a spokesman for Mayor Tom Bradley said the mayor is backing the plan.

Individual council members said they could not comment until the plan, called the Child Abuse Prevention and Education program, is introduced. However, police are counting on approval.

Capt. Clayton Mayes, commander of the Juvenile Division, said he thinks the measure will “get no resistance at all” in the council. Although it still requires the support of two council committees, the proposal could be approved by the council as early as next month, said Cmdr. Matthew Hunt, LAPD liaison officer to city government.

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Aims to Break Abuse Cycle

The proposal is aimed at “breaking the endless cycle of child abuse,” Gates said in his description of the plan to the Police Commission. Police and behavioral researchers contend that abused children often grow up to be abusive parents themselves.

Police said the program has not been tried by any other big city police department in the country, and its long-range success in changing family behavior patterns will be difficult to determine in only one year.

But so far, the program has received the enthusiastic support of experts who regularly work with abused children and their accused parents.

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“I’d have to say this is the biggest breakthrough the cops have made in a long time, when it comes to child abuse,” said Judge Irwin J. Nebron of the Van Nuys Juvenile Court. “Everyone agrees that if you can get to the kids and their parents early on, you can turn them around.”

‘Need Has Never Been Greater’

Added Gerhard Moland, director of a similar project run by the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services: “I’m glad to see someone jumping aboard. The need has never been greater.”

The county program, begun in October, uses social workers instead of peace officers. But the social workers, deployed from sheriff’s and police stations, also try to respond immediately to child abuse emergencies.

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Police officials said that, besides the need for combating child abuse at its roots, the proposal comes at a time when the caseload is at an all-time high for juvenile division investigators.

From 1974 to 1984, child abuse cases increased nearly fourfold in Los Angeles--from 927 to 3,346, according to police statistics. Last year, that figure rose to 3,855 cases, overburdening the department’s current 14 child-abuse detectives, said Brown, who helped draft the new proposal.

About 30% of those cases were reported in the Valley, where four full-time child abuse investigators currently work, Brown said.

Brown attributes the rise in reports to recent publicity about child abuse and a 1981 state law that requires people who work with children to report to authorities when they have detected signs of abuse.

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Priority Given to Youngest

About 20% of child injury reports now get investigated the same day, with priority given to cases involving children under 6, Brown said. In other cases, it can be days or weeks before an investigator checks the report, he said.

“By that time, the bruise has healed or memories are foggy,” said Detective Ed Fitzgerald, commander of the child abuse division in the Valley.

If the pilot project is approved, the new team of officers will be available seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight, and will respond to every injury report the same day it is filed, Brown said. The officers will be trained to “see beyond” the injury and the accused family member to try to determine what prompted the attack, Brown added.

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“When you get a parent who is beating on his kid, there are usually other family problems that go along with it,” Brown said. “It could be alcoholism, drug use, bad grades or simply just someone who’s had a bad day and loses his temper.”

To treat the underlying problems, police will refer the cases to the Juvenile Justice Connection Project, a nonprofit group in Van Nuys established five years ago to channel children and their parents to proper counseling when trouble strikes a family.

The existence of the Van Nuys agency and a similar service in South Los Angeles is the reason that the Valley and the southern part of the city were selected as test sites by police, Brown said.

Sheila Fulton, director of the Juvenile Justice Connection Project, said she expects police will refer 40 to 50 cases a month to her staff, and that about 60% to 80% of the families will agree to counseling.

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“It is a little embarrassing for them--having total strangers say, ‘Hey, you need help,’ ” Fulton said. “But once the family realizes that there is someone out there who wants to help them, they are actually relieved and will go along with it. Of course, they could say ‘Go fly a kite.’ ”

Fulton said more than 1,000 public and private agencies that treat problems ranging from alcoholism to kleptomania have agreed to take referrals from the Juvenile Justice Connection.

Besides referring the cases to the Juvenile Justice Connection Project, the investigating officers will be required to make a follow-up visit to the family six weeks later to see if its members have sought counseling and if the problem persists.

“It will just be a little reminder, just to let them know we haven’t disappeared,” said Lt. Doc Warkentin, who will be the commander of the new unit if it is approved.

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Officers Would Teach Classes

If the plan does get the go-ahead, officers will not only work on specific cases but will visit schools and other organizations to teach classes on child abuse prevention to children and their parents.

The new team of officers will keep a record of families with a history of child abuse complaints. In such families, abuse runs from generation to generation, experts said, with parents often not realizing that their behavior influences the way their children will act in the future.

“The whole thing just runs through families, and goes on and on,” Fitzgerald said. “Those are the ones we really have to have an impact on.”

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