Killings of youths tied to child protection system soar in 2006

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-nine children with ties to Los Angeles County's child protection system were victims of homicide during the first 11 months of this year, prompting concern among child welfare advocates who say the county must do more to protect at-risk youths.

The 79 homicides were more than twice the 37 at-risk children slain in all of 2005, and accounted for nearly half of all juvenile homicides countywide. Most of the 79 killings were believed to have been gang-related.

The sharp increase in homicides was revealed in statistics released by the county in response to a request by The Times.

In compiling the list of deaths, the county reviewed the cases of thousands of children with ties to the system. They included those in foster care, those receiving services in their own homes, and those whose cases have been closed by the county's Department of Children and Family Services.

Though child protection officials were not able to provide a precise number of children who have come into the system over time, they said that at any given time there are about 60,000 open referrals.

County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and numerous advocates said the department could not be held directly responsible for the deaths, many of which they attributed to growing violence in some neighborhoods.

But Burke and the advocates said the county must assume responsibility for the safety of children in its care, either by choosing foster homes in safe neighborhoods, or by providing other interventions to stabilize family life and keep the youths from being attracted to gangs.

"Just because somebody else pulled the trigger doesn't exonerate [the county] from the deaths," said Bill Grimm, a child welfare attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

Trish Ploehn, the department's new head, said most of the slain children were living with their parents and were killed in their own neighborhoods. The deaths did not occur as a result of faulty placement by the county in foster care, she said.

"We can't take children away from loving parents just because they live in a gang-infested neighborhood," she said.

But she acknowledged that more resources must be made available to help parents keep their children out of gangs. She said many other organizations -- including law enforcement, schools and mental health agencies -- must work together to make the neighborhoods where many at-risk children live less violent.

The county's statistics show in stark terms the threat posed by gang violence. Of the 79 killings, 53 were drive-by slayings, virtually all of which were gang-related. Only four of the 79 slain children died as a result of abuse or neglect by their parents or caregivers.

While killings of children with ties to the county's child protection system have more than doubled, from 37 in 2005 to 79 in the first 11 months of 2006, drive-by shootings have increased nearly fivefold, from 11 in 2005 to 53 so far this year.

"This is a concern for the entire city," said Karen Bass, a Democratic state assemblywoman who represents part of South Los Angeles, where many of the killings took place. "It's not just a concern for group homes and foster parents -- it's a concern and it's a crisis in our county."

Overall, county statistics show that 175 children with ties to the child protection system died in the first 11 months of 2006, including the 79 slayings, six suicides and 24 cases in which the coroner is trying to find the cause. The rest were natural causes and fatal accidents.

The 175 deaths represented about a quarter of all juvenile deaths in the county during that period; the 79 killings represented between 40% and 50% of youth homicides countywide.

The problem of how best to protect at-risk children in the county's child welfare system, experts said, is complex, highlighting such disparate issues as safety in poor neighborhoods and the question of whether children are better served in their own homes and communities or by being placed elsewhere.

Burke said the deaths pointed to a searing need for better intervention when children are young -- supports that go way beyond the question of where they should live.

The department, Burke said, needs to teach parents and foster parents the signs that a child is becoming involved with gangs, and provide precisely targeted mental health services and parenting assistance to make family life as stable as possible.

Ploehn said the department has set aside $5 million for a prevention program aimed at helping to stabilize family life and provide such supports as therapy and after-school programs for families in need of help. The money also would be used to provide supports for youths returning to their own homes after a stint in foster care, an area in which she and others say support is sorely lacking.

The department also is seeking a waiver of state and federal funding rules that would free $350 million per year to provide services to youths and families. Currently, Ploehn said, that money can be used only if children are taken out of their homes. But in about six months, when final approvals are expected, the funds should be available to help them in their own homes as well.

"If we do that, and we do it right ... there will be less gang involvement and therefore there will be less gang-related shootings," Ploehn said.

But others question the county's policy of keeping more children in troubled homes, saying the practice may be putting children at risk.

Over the last several years, the county has reduced the number of children in placements outside their natural homes from about 55,000 to 21,000.

The idea, officials say, has been to provide mental health and other services to families where children are at risk of abuse or neglect, so parents are better able to provide stable, loving care. Some law enforcement officials and advocates for abused children, however, say such a policy is not practical -- particularly because there are not enough supports for families after children are placed back in the care of their parents.

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo has been particularly critical, saying flatly that children are losing their lives because county social workers are too focused on returning them to abusive or neglectful homes.

Even if the children are not injured or killed by their parents in such homes, Delgadillo said, neglect, abuse and instability make youths prime candidates for gang life -- and that can lead to the very sorts of crime-related deaths that the county is seeing.

"Two-thirds of adult male felons were victims of child abuse before the age of 12," Delgadillo said.

Deanne Tilton Durfee, director of the Inter-Agency Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect, said it was not surprising that children with connections to the county's child protection and foster care system were drawn to gangs.

"They don't have stable families, and the gang serves as a surrogate family," she said.

But that doesn't mean the county can wash its hands of their deaths, she and others said.

"If they're being killed in neighborhoods where we sent them, then this is not good," Durfee said. "If they were at home, we need to look further into why they were at home."

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Homicides up

Homicides of children involved with L.A. County's child protection service:

'03: 15

'04: 19

'05: 37

'06: 79*

*Through Nov. 30.

Source: Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services

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