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Panel Scolds Agency in Girl’s Death

Times Staff Writer

An overburdened Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services prematurely dropped its investigation into threats of violence in the family of Judith Barsi, a 10-year-old actress later slain by her father, a county advisory panel said Tuesday.

After reviewing confidential files of the investigation, the Commission for Children’s Services recommended that the department become more sensitive to the impact of domestic violence on children and develop clearer guidelines for closing an inquiry.

Department of Children’s Services Director Robert L. Chaffee, appearing at a meeting of the commission Tuesday, defended his agency’s handling of the case. The child’s mother wanted it closed and “said, in essence, ‘Thank you very much. I don’t need you anymore,’ ” Chaffee said.

The commission also called for more county and state funds for the Department of Children’s Services, disclosing that the social worker who handled the Barsi matter was assigned to 67 cases, 27 more than a full caseload.

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“Lack of funds is an excuse, to a degree, but it can only go so far,” commission member Thomas L. Becket said.

On July 27, authorities discovered the bodies of Judith Barsi, her mother, Maria, and her father, Jozsef, at their West Hills home. Investigators determined that the father had shot his wife and daughter, set part of the house afire and then shot himself.

In the months before the deaths, the child actress’s agent, her therapist and several family friends told county child welfare authorities that Jozsef Barsi had threatened his family. But the department dropped its inquiry in June after Maria Barsi gave assurances that she and the girl were moving away from her husband into an apartment, commission members said.

Last month, Juvenile Dependency Court Judge Kathryn Doi Todd ordered the county to open its files on the case to the commission, a citizen’s advisory body to the county Board of Supervisors on children’s issues.

Although the commission would not disclose the file’s contents, member Helen A. Kleinberg said during the meeting that one reason the county did not act was that the abuse apparently inflicted on Judith Barsi was emotional, rather than physical.

But emotional abuse can be as threatening to a child as physical abuse, Kleinberg said. “This is part of the whole problem: It’s easy to focus on physical abuse because we can see it,” she said.

Before a case can be closed, caseworkers should visit the home or interview the child, said Kleinberg, who would not comment on whether the files indicated that Judith Barsi was personally interviewed.


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