System is blamed in boy's death

A 4-year-old boy killed last month by his mother at their Highland Park home had been the subject of a botched child-abuse investigation, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Tuesday. The mother committed suicide after decapitating her young son with a kitchen knife, according to police.

Last fall, the principal at the preschool that Lars Sanchez attended called the Department of Children and Family Services' child-abuse hotline to report "emotional abuse" of the boy by his mother, according to LAPD Capt. William A. Murphy.

Although the hotline call triggered an investigation by family services department officials, Molina said Tuesday that officials did not properly assess the mother's serious mental health problems. She said the investigation also failed to uncover the fact that Lars' mother previously had been involuntarily confined to a hospital after hospital officials determined her mental health problems to be severe enough to make her a threat to herself or others.

As a result, Lars was left in his mother's care, according to Molina, who represents the area and has been briefed on the case.

Molina said the system "made a huge mistake in this case." Lars was killed about 9 a.m. July 18 in the 300 block of Vista Place, across the street from Garvanza Park, authorities said. Murphy did not release the mother's name, saying he was waiting for clearance from homicide detectives. Police previously said she was 43.

Less than a week after Lars was killed, 6-year-old Dae'von Bailey was beaten to death in South Los Angeles.

Dae'von's death, which police allege was at the hands of a caregiver, came after a history of calls to the child-abuse hotline -- and accounts of abuse from the boy himself. It was the 18th time since January 2008 that a child died of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of the family services department.

"Dae'von's death has attracted a lot of attention, but the case in Highland Park was equally severe, if not more so," Molina said.

It was still not clear Tuesday exactly where the system broke down in Lars' case and whether it involved family services agency social worker error or mistakes by another agency.

Molina and family services department Director Trish Ploehn said additional information could not be released because of confidentiality laws.

On the day of the murder-suicide, Murphy said the crime scene was among the worst he had ever seen and added that police psychologists were working with officers and others who saw it.

In response to the killings of Lars and Dae'von, supervisors began to consider reform measures Tuesday that included increased vetting of child-abuse investigations that are judged "unsubstantiated." Molina wants such cases reviewed by two additional managers.

In addition, supervisors hope to expand the number of children who undergo medical and mental health assessments during child abuse investigations at county facilities. Such assessments are conducted at six "hub" clinics, staffed with forensic pediatricians and other experts trained to spot abuse or neglect.

The supervisors, however, delayed final approval on the reform measures for another 30 days as county staffers study possible problems they might confront. Supervisor Mark-Ridley Thomas has called for an independent review of system failures in Dae'von's case.

Meanwhile, the supervisors approved Ridley-Thomas' request to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Marcas Fisher, 36, who was caring for Dae'von and is wanted by police.

The Los Angeles County district attorney has issued a warrant for Fisher, alleging one count each of murder and assault on a child causing death. Ridley-Thomas said the offer would also reward information leading to the arrest and conviction of any individual or individuals who are harboring or sheltering Fisher.

"LAPD investigators believe there are some who know of Mr. Fisher's whereabouts and may be harboring and helping him avoid arrest," Ridley-Thomas said.

Anyone with information in the case is asked to call LAPD detectives at (877) 527-3247.


Times staff writer Ari B. Bloomekatz contributed to this report.

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