Data system to curb child abuse is urged

Responding to a long-running pattern of child abuse deaths that might have been prevented, Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday will consider a renewed attempt to ease communication among agencies that deal with troubled families.

The proposal calls for an interlinked computer system that would expand child abuse investigators' ability to access records showing a family's criminal, educational and medical histories, including critical clues about dangers faced by children.

Child advocates have pushed for such reforms for more than 18 years, to little avail. One computerized approach adopted years ago has proved largely ineffective, with even its managers saying few investigators use it. Other proposals have simply languished, with county leaders demanding no follow-through.

The newest proposal, introduced by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, comes two weeks after an article in The Times detailed how communication breakdowns among various agencies played a key role in deaths that had been investigated by child welfare officials.

The story depicted several cases dating as far back as 1991 in which agencies failed to talk to one another about clear warning signs such as domestic violence, criminal convictions, mental illness and parents who themselves were abused as children.

"Child welfare is the shared responsibility of all county departments, non-county agencies and community-based partners serving the family," Antonovich said in a prepared statement.

"Time is of the essence and this automated system will significantly improve the county's ability to identify, prevent and treat incidents of child abuse and neglect," he said.

The improvements, however, are not as sweeping as some child advocates would like.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has balked at changes that he fears would violate families' privacy.

As part of a compromise, the new system would not include detailed medical, mental health or school district histories. Instead, it would indicate possible concerns and allow child abuse investigators to call the agency holding the records to request more information.

"Protecting kids from harm and neglect must be our top priority," Yaroslavsky said, "and our ability to do that absolutely depends on full participation by all our departments to ensure that decision-makers can always access the most accurate information available."

The plan lays out a firm 18-month timetable and calls for quarterly reports on its progress.

Information from school districts, private hospitals and law enforcement agencies would be loaded into the system and the information would be aligned with the risk factors that child abuse investigators consider.

Asked if he was confident the plan would save lives, Deputy County Chief Executive Miguel Santana said, "Absolutely."

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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latimes.com/childdeaths

Times reporters Garrett Therolf and Kim Christensen are examining failures by L.A. County to monitor children in the system who are at risk for abuse. View the entire Innocents Betrayed series, including stories, photos and graphics, online.

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