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STRUGGLING TO PROTECT CHILDREN : The Front Lines : Fight Against Child Abuse in Orange County Begins With a Phone Call

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a Thursday morning, and Connie Weinman is waiting for the phone to ring.

So are five other social workers seated in cubicles at the Child Abuse Registry in Orange, ground zero in the county’s system for dealing with abused and neglected children.

Calls to the registry hot line come in unpredictably. Weinman says they sometimes get 10 calls within two minutes. Other times, like this morning, they wait for the phone to ring.

But not for long.

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“Child Abuse Registry; may I help you?” Weinman says into her headset, pen poised to take notes. “Can I get your name, ma’am, or do you want to report anonymously? Why don’t you tell me what’s happening? . . . What do you mean when you say he drinks heavily? OK, so you’ve never seen him sober. OK, what’s going on? Did he ever hit the kids? OK, where is Mom when this was happening?”

The call is the sixth this morning. And it’s only 9:45. By the end of the day, social workers will have taken 127 reports. Some days they receive more than 200 calls a day. And every year the hot-line phones ring more frequently.

In 1994, the Child Abuse Registry received reports of alleged abuse and neglect on 45,129 Orange County children, representing 19,632 families--a nearly 23% increase over the previous year.

The rising number of reports alleging child abuse is due, in part, to an increase in public awareness and the growing number of mandated reporters--people who have been required by law since the early 1980s to report suspected child abuse. Animal-control investigators--who have the opportunity to observe family situations--are among the most recent additions to the list of mandated reporters, who range from physicians and teachers to child-care providers and photo developers.

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As a result of those 45,129 reports, 1,886 children were taken into protective custody.

The vast majority of child abuse reports are made by these mandated reporters, mostly school officials and health care professionals. (Because schools are one of the primary sources, the number of reports drops in July, August, December and January, when schools are out of session.) But the registry also receives calls from relatives, neighbors and passersby.

Although child abuse spans the economic spectrum, a definite link exists between an increase in reports and families experiencing financial difficulties, says Gene Howard, until recently director of Children’s Services and now director of the Orangewood Children’s Foundation. “The level of [child] neglect reports rises in a poor economy,” he says. Financial strain on families “oftentimes can lead to physically abusing kids because parents can lose their temper and are more stressed out during those periods.”

Cuts in the Program

At a time when the number of reports is rising, the county bankruptcy has caused the Social Services Agency to reduce staff and funding for its Children’s Services division, a child welfare program that has been considered one of the best in the state.

* Because of the cuts, social workers who investigate the reports and provide services to families must now deal with at least a 25% increase in caseloads. Depending on circumstances such as the time of year, some caseloads may even grow to twice the normal size.

* Funding for the voluntary maintenance program for families whose children are considered at risk for further abuse has been slashed, reducing the number of clients being served in half to 3,000 and cutting social worker salaries and benefits by $1.5 million.

In all, the Children’s Services division was reduced by 74 senior social worker positions, 18 of which were part of the family maintenance voluntary program, in which social workers intervene early in cases of abuse and neglect.

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In the wake of the county bankruptcy, a group of social workers presented a proposal in July to separate Children’s Services from the Social Services Agency to help ensure that funds for Children’s Services are spent on the prevention of child abuse as opposed to administrative expansion. The plan, which includes fewer management positions and an unspecified increase in front-line social workers, emphasizes preventive services that can deal with family problems before they become severe enough to require that the child be removed from the home.

“The main aspect of the proposal is to keep the front-line jobs at their highest possible level, because that’s where we impact the community,” says Gary Govett, a senior social worker and member of the proposal committee. The plan has been presented to Social Services Director Larry Leaman and to County Supervisor William G. Steiner.

* Funding for contracted community organizations providing intervention services has been cut about 25%, or about $500,000.

For the 11-year-old Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center of Orange County, which places volunteer parent aides in homes to teach proper parenting techniques to abusive parents, that means losing $50,000 a year. Two workers were laid off and services have been cut from the program, which served 293 Orange County families in 1994.

But the Child Abuse Registry, the first line of defense in helping abused children, is considered sacrosanct.

“The Child Abuse Registry was not impacted by the bankruptcy because we have to have the ability to receive the calls,” says Tuey Lee, program manager of the Child Abuse Registry and the Emergency Response division.

Social worker Weinman, who joined the hot line a year ago after six years of investigating abuse allegations and determining what counseling and services are required, figures she personally has taken 3,000 reports over the phone.

Some calls are hard to forget--like the 4-year-old Anaheim girl whose mother’s boyfriend had beaten the girl so badly her nose was swollen and she couldn’t breathe.

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Or the Fullerton family whose home was so filthy that human feces were floating in the bathtub and a year-old baby was being left in her crib all day without being picked up.

Or the Anaheim boy whose face had a belt mark where he had been hit.

Few cases make headlines, but Weinman also took the initial report on the 32-year-old Orange woman who was sentenced to life in prison in June for torturing her 10-year-old nephew with a souvenir baseball bat and searing his tongue with a red-hot butter knife.

“It’s still amazing to me what people can do to their children,” Weinman says. “After all this time--the stuff I’ve seen, the people I’ve talked to--it’s absolutely incredible to me.”

Defining Child Abuse

Child abuse comes under a variety of guises: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, caretaker absence, and exploitation.

But not all of the 45,129 reports to the Child Abuse Registry in 1994 were investigated. About a third of the reports concerned situations that simply don’t meet the definition of child abuse. “Mutual combat” between a teen-ager and a parent who is using self-defense, for example, is not considered child abuse. Nor is “reasonable and age-appropriate” spanking that causes no injuries.

“There has to be enough reason for us to believe abuse is occurring [to investigate],” says the registry’s Lee, who advises anyone in doubt about whether an incident is child abuse to call the registry at (714) 938-0505 and let a social worker make the determination.

Of the 28,988 children who were actually investigated for alleged child abuse in 1994, 9,557 (33%) were substantiated cases and 16,510 (57%) were not, due to a lack of credible evidence. Another 2,231 (8%) were cases in which an investigation was initiated but could not be completed for a variety of reasons, such as an inaccurate address or the family had moved, and 690 (2%) were unfounded: An investigator determined the report to be false.

Couples undergoing divorces have made false child abuse reports during child custody battles, and innocent adults sometimes have reports filed on them: A bruise on a child’s face, for example, turns out to be the result of a fight between the child and a same-age friend.

All of this leads to a potentially bothersome question: What exactly remains on file when a report is made to the Child Abuse Registry?

For an alleged perpetrator’s name to appear in the registry, officials say, the reported incident must first meet the definition of child abuse. If the allegation is investigated and later shown to be unfounded, the report is eliminated. But even if a report is labeled unsubstantiated for a lack of evidence, it remains on file. All information, however, is confidential, accessible only to law enforcement agencies or in certain instances when a person is being hired for a child-care position.

Although there is no “typical” child abuser, former Children’s Services Director Howard says repeat abusers in particular are most likely to have been abused as children themselves. “It goes back generations, so that the family system perpetuates this approach and response to the kids,” he says.

A significant number of cases--and the most serious cases that come into the system--also involve drug and alcohol abuse, Howard says. A Children’s Services survey completed last year reveals that in about 70% of the cases, either one or both of the parents had alcohol or other substance-abuse problems.

The combination of parents having a background of child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse, Howard says, produces a family system “that’s pretty resistant to intervention.”

How Much Intervention?

Howard says legislation that supported a “very quick removal of a child from the home” underwent a major shift in the early ‘80s “to a situation now where we have to be able to prove some very imminent threat to the child before we can obtain a removal.”

“We see some evidence in other [counties] where children have died because of the attempt to do a family preservation,” he says. “The pendulum has swung very far in that direction, and I think it’s a good question whether or not it’s gone too far.”

But the laws, Howard says, “are based on societal expectations that children should remain with their parents unless there’s a very serious reason that they should not.

“In the field of child welfare you’re always walking the razor’s edge: Did you intervene too soon? Did you not intervene soon enough? Did you intervene too severely? It’s a constant kind of a balance,” he says.

Orange County actually has one of the lowest rates of children taken into protective custody, Howard says. Of the cases investigated in 1994, only 1,886 were viewed as high-risk, and the children were taken to Orangewood Children’s Home. Most children eventually return home.

Historically, efforts to reduce the number of abused and neglected children have come only after abuse occurs, with intervention programs provided to rehabilitate the family.

What’s needed, Howard and other experts agree, are not only alcohol and substance-abuse prevention programs but also programs that teach people how to effectively parent their children from birth through adolescence.

But those kinds of programs traditionally have been hampered by a lack of funding, Howard says, noting that all child welfare programs are a combination of state, federal and county funding, with the typical funding portion 80% state and federal and 20% county.

“It’s a very hard sell [for early intervention programs], and the allocations from the federal and state government still emphasize the intervention aspect of it,” Howard says.

But that is beginning to change, he says.

Funding Prevention

Family preservation and support legislation passed by Congress last year allocates $1.2 billion over five years throughout the United States to provide prevention and early intervention programs for families that are at risk of child abuse.

“Fifty percent of those dollars can be used for support services so that you don’t have to qualify as either having abused your child or having the potential to abuse your child,” Howard says. “You simply can be a parent who needs some services because you’re unsure about how to deal with your child.”

It is, Howard says, “our first opportunity to take federal dollars and put them into such early prevention types of activities. It’s a beginning. It’s just got to get bigger.”

Several community organizations already have begun focusing their efforts on child abuse prevention.

The Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center of Orange County, for example, offers a Welcome Baby program in which parent aides act as role models for first-time parents and offer guidance and training in child care and development.

The United Way of Orange County also will launch the privately funded Parents As Teachers, a nationwide voluntary preventive program in which certified parent educators make monthly home visits to help parents understand each stage of child development, offer practical tips on ways to encourage learning and promote strong parent-child relationships beginning in infancy.

Both the home visits and a monthly group parent meeting help relieve parental stress and the sense of isolation many parents feel--both of which can contribute to child abuse, says Lorraine Mazza, director of the United Way of Orange County’s Success by 6, a program that works in collaboration with the community on children’s issues.

“Parents needs help in parenting,” says Mazza, adding that the results of evaluations done on the Parents As Teachers program have proved that it lowers child abuse.

“When parents don’t understand why a child is behaving the way they do, it builds up this frustration level, and the anger grows,” she says. “What this [program] does is really give them tools to manage the child and learn about development, and they feel more in control.”

The growing awareness that early prevention must increase--and the steps that already have been taken to do that--keep Howard and other experts from feeling a sense of hopelessness when faced with growing child abuse statistics.

And there also are those cases when after-the-fact intervention works.

Howard says that people often tell him, “My God, you must just be willing to give up.” But, he says, “there are literally hundreds and thousands of kids and families that are safe and are rehabilitated, where things do come back together and families can go on and live productive, good lives.

“So I don’t get discouraged at all, because you see good things happening. We always wish we could do more. But within what we have to work with, there’s much good work being done, and I don’t think that should be lost in all of this.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Picture of Abuse

Some indication of the growing problem of child abuse in Orange County is seen in the number of suspected cases reported. The reports increased nearly 60% between 1990 and 1994.

1990: 28,364

1994: 45,129

*

Types of Abuse

There are various types of child abuse, from neglect to striking:

Physical: Deliberate physical injury, causing bruising, lacerations; shaking, striking or throwing a child

Sexual: Ranges from fondling intimate parts to sexual assault

General neglect: Child left alone unsupervised, vulnerable to accidents, injuries or crime

Severe neglect: Inadequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care; child’s health endangered

Caretaker absence: Child left alone unsupervised for more than a few hours

Emotional: Repeated verbal assaults, for example, which may change child’s behavior

Exploitation: Child being used for a purpose beyond his or her ability and development, such as being overworked or not attending school to care for siblings

Breakdown:

* All cases 1994

Physical and sexual abuse and general neglect are the most commonly reported types of child abuse. There has been an increase in cases in all categories in the past four years.

Physical: 38%

Sexual: 25%

General neglect: 26%

Severe neglect: 4%

Caretaker absence: 4%

Emotional: 3%

* Increase in cases from 1990 to 1994

Physical: 49%

Sexual: 56%

General neglect: 83%

Severe neglect: 26%

Caretaker absence: 76%

Emotional: 84%

All kinds: 59%

* Source: Orange County Social Services Anegcy.

* Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE/Los Angeles Times

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Case History

A handful of the most egregious child abuse cases in Orange County in recent years:

July 6, 1993: California Department of Social Services strips James and Carol Fox of foster care license after numerous sexual abuse and illegal care charges lodged against them. The case was dropped when James Fox died.

Dec. 3, 1993: Transient couple Timothy and Katrina McLaughlin sentenced to five years in prison for forcing their 13-year-old daughter to work as a prostitute to earn money for a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm.

Oct. 15, 1994: Celerino Alarran Ochoa, 18, arrested on suspicion of murder after girlfriend’s 18-month-old daughter dies of unexplained injuries. The mother, Maria Delgado, says she will stand by her boyfried during the trial.

April 28, 1995: Brian Laudenback, 33, sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for fatally beating his girlfriend’s 22-month-old son. Child’s broken bones and internal injuries are comparable to those caused by car wreck.

June 9, 1995: Cynthia Medina, 32, sentenced to life in prison for sodomizing her 10-year-old nephew with a small baseball bat and searing his tongue with a red-hot butter knife.

Demographics

Here are the demographics of abuse victims in 1994:

* Sex:

Male: 49%

Female: 51%

* Age:

Younger than 1: 6%

Unknown: 1%

Ages 1-3: 19%

Ages 4-7: 27%

Ages 8-12: 25%

Ages 13-18: 22%

* Race:

White: 50%

Latino: 39%

Black: 4%

Asian: 1%

Indochinese: 2%

Other/unknown: 4%

History

Society has continually redefined its acceptance of physical and emotional abuse of children. An overview of the changing perception:

1866: Parents beat, starve and force children to work without fear of reprisal until New York court intervenes, removing orphan from home of abusive foster parents; decision spawns first organization to promote children’s welfare, New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

1909: Two schools of thought embraced: One advocates removing child and sentencing abusers to jail; the other supports immediate reunification of abused with unpunished abuser--the latter endorsed by White House.

1947: “Spare the rod, spoil the child” ideology remains prevalent; radiologist John Caffey traces connection between multiple fractures and physical abuse, making society aware of children who are both severely and repeatedly beaten.

1962: C. Henry Kempe publishes child abuse study in Journal of the American Medical Assn., calling for those in medical, psychological, social and legal professions to ask questions regarding injuries and consider physical safety of children before release to parents.

1972: States and federal government adopt laws allowing prosecution of parents who neglect, sexually abuse, emotionally harm or mistreat children. Psychologists report that abused children become abusive parents.

1990: Congress includes increased penalties for child abuse in Crime Control Act.

Finding Help

Early identification, reporting and intervention are vital to protecting children from abuse. County agencies and local organizations dedicated to dealing with child abuse issues:

* Child Abuse Registry

P.O. Box 14102

Orange 92613-1502

Phone: (714) 938-0505

24-hour central registry to report all incidents or suspicions of child abuse and neglect occurring within Orange County

* CHILDHELP U.S.A. Hotline

P.O. Box 630

Hollywood 90028

Phone: 800-4-A-CHILD

TDD for hearing-impaired: (800)2-A-CHILD

24-hour crisis hot line providing information and referrals to anyone with concerns about child abuse

* Children’s Bureau of Southern California

50 S. Anaheim Blvd., Suite 241

Anaheim 92805

Phone: (714) 517-1900

In-home family counseling and foster placement services; bilingual therapy and parent education classes

* C.O.P.E.S. (Child or Parental Emergency Services)

2015 N. Broadway

Santa Ana 92706

Phone: (714) 836-3601

Referrals and parent education in English, Spanish and Vietnamese

* California Youth Crisis Line

Phone: (800) 843-5200

Free, 24-hour hot line providing resource referral, intervention counseling and nonjudgmental counseling for parent or youth

* Parent Help USA

Mothers Against Child Abuse

417 31st St.

Newport Beach 92663

Crisis counseling, child abuse prevention and resource referrals

* The Safe Place

Martin Luther Hospital

1830 W. Romneya Drive

Anaheim 92801

Hospital-based child abuse prevention and treatment program for victims, working in conjunction with community service agencies and law enforcement personnel

* Boys Town of Southern California

23832 Rockfield Blvd., suite 125, Lake Forest

Phone: (714) 581-2281

Offers programs for troubled children and families and an in-home treatment program for families at risk of child abuse or in crisis. Counselors teach proper parenting techniques and serve as a resource for other services such as substance-abuse treatment programs.

* Exchange Club Child Abuse Prevention Center of Orange County

2482 Newport Blvd., suite 7, Newport Beach.

Phone: (714) 722-1107

Trained volunteers provide emotional support, parenting skills education and practical guidance in homes where children have been abused or are in danger of being abused or neglected.

The Reporters

Professionals such as government agency workers, doctors and law enforcement officers are required by law to report child abuse, and they make up the majority of reporters, but the single most productive source is non-mandated individuals, such as friends and family. A look at who reported abuse in 1994:

Non-mandated individuals: 25%

School officials: 19%

Social Services/Health Care Agency: 17%

Medical facilities*: 17%

Law enforcement: 10%

Other**: 12%

* Includes private doctors, therapists

** Includes child/day care centers

--

Sources: Orange County Social Services Agency; Social Service Resource Directory; “Defining Child Abuse,” by Jeanne Giovannoni & Rosina Becerra; “Child Abuse,” edited by Eli H. Newberger, M.D.; World Book Encyclopedia; “For Your Own Good” by Alice Miller; Times reports.

Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE, JANICE L. JONES and APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times


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