Yaroslavsky questions reporting of child deaths tied to abuse or neglect

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Tuesday that he suspects the Department of Children and Family Services has failed to acknowledge some recent child deaths tied to abuse or neglect, inaccurately leading the public to believe that the number of children dying under such circumstances is falling.

According to department statistics released in recent days, six children whose families had previously come to the attention of child welfare officials have died of abuse or neglect this year, down from 11 such deaths by this point last year.

Yaroslavsky questioned why this year’s numbers did not include the suicide of 11-year old Jorge Tarin, who hung himself with a jump rope in his mother’s Montebello home in June. Earlier that day, Jorge, who previously had spent 15 months in foster care, told a school counselor that he intended to kill himself “because I’m tired of people hitting me all the time.” Just hours before Jorge’s death, a social worker sent to interview the boy at home left without him.

Yaroslavsky said “a reasonable person” would say Jorge’s suicide was caused by abuse or neglect.

Department of Children and Family Services officials, however, determined that Jorge’s death did not result from abuse or neglect, meaning it did not meet the standard requiring public release of information under a 2007 state law.

“I don’t know what the rationale for that was,” Yaroslavsky said.

A department spokesman, Nishith Bhatt, declined comment and referred questions to county lawyers.

“I think the department has an interest in minimizing the number of cases that they put on the … list because, frankly, it makes them look better,” Yaroslavsky said.

Rosemarie Belda, the Board of Supervisors’ special counsel responsible for investigating child deaths, said she too believed that the department was using a somewhat narrow interpretation for abuse or neglect and could, “if that was the desire,” use a more expansive interpretation.

Belda said one factor complicating the department’s determinations was the California Department of Social Services. The state agency released regulations last year that narrowed the definition of abuse or neglect and excluded fatalities that were not caused by a parent, guardian or foster parent.

Before those new regulations, county child welfare officials released records for deaths committed by parents’ romantic partners, extended family members and others. Those deaths also were included in the department’s statistics for abuse or neglect deaths.

County Counsel Andrea Ordin said the county, along with other jurisdictions throughout the state, has grappled with many determinations that are subject to discretion.

“The statute and regulations just ask whether abuse or neglect was a cause,” Ordin said. “But does that mean 100%? 90%? 30%? Or 20%?”

“Can I say that there has been no failure of discretion in making a finding of abuse or neglect? No, I can’t say that,” she said.

Supervisor Gloria Molina won board approval Tuesday to ask the Office of Independent Review to evaluate whether Department of Children and Family Services officials were in compliance with the 2007 disclosure law and report back next week.

That action came a week after supervisors voted 4 to 1 to order county departments to cooperate with an investigation into what they called the “inappropriate disclosure of confidential child welfare information” to the Los Angeles Times. Yaroslavsky was the lone no vote.