Los Angeles County didn't report child deaths

Los Angeles County officials have failed to follow state law that requires them to publicly disclose child fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect, according to an independent audit released Monday.


FOR THE RECORD:
Children's services: An article in Tuesday's Section A about an audit of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services' handling of cases involving child deaths said auditors had found that the department was "asking law enforcement agencies to object to the release of documents before investigators had the chance to review the case files." That phrase was ambiguous —it could have been interpreted to mean the department was demanding that agencies file objections to the release of documents. It should have said the department gave criminal investigators no opportunity to review case files before objecting to their release.



The violations involve "potentially dozens" of child fatalities, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

"The board has been misled, but more importantly the public has been misled and that is really inexcusable," Yaroslavsky said. "There is only one possible motivation here, other than the right hand not doing what the left hand is doing, and that is an intent to withhold information from the public."

Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn, reached by telephone Monday evening, declined to comment, saying she was still reviewing the auditors' findings. She agreed to an interview with The Times on Tuesday.

The finding by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review comes amid a growing debate about whether child welfare officials are underreporting deaths of children whose families previously had come to the department's attention.

Yaroslavsky said auditors uncovered the discrepancy when they reviewed the case of Jorge Tarin, an 11-year-old Montebello boy who hanged himself with a jump rope in June. In confidential court filings, social workers declared his death to be the result of abuse or neglect, but when it came time to report abuse or neglect deaths to the public, the department left his case off the list.

In the audit, Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, noted a dramatic change last year in the amount of information released by the department, with disclosure in only four of 18 cases. Gennaco said the pattern has extended into 2010. The Times has been denied in repeated public records requests for information.

A 2007 state law requires release of numerous records in such cases unless doing so would jeopardize a criminal investigation. Gennaco found that child welfare officials were asking law enforcement agencies to object to the release of documents before investigators had the chance to review the case files. The effect has been blanket objections to disclosure that resulted in "a virtual paralysis of the statute's intent."

The independent audit was released just days after county officials closed an investigation ordered by the Board of Supervisors into who provided The Times with information about children who died while their families were child protective services scrutiny.

A single-page report on the inquiry written by County Chief Executive William T Fujioka said officials found nothing.

The investigation was launched behind closed doors in what supervisors acknowledged was a violation of the state's open meetings law. It was later approved in a public vote in what supervisors said was an effort to "cure" the initial breach.

The supervisors said they were responding to Ploehn's complaints that The Times had reported on material she described as confidential and inappropriate. Yaroslavsky, who voted against the leak inquiry during the public discussion, criticized Ploehn for pressing for the probe, saying "the obsession with leaks … exceeds the obsession with child deaths."

In an op-ed in The Times last week, Ploehn called it "simply untrue" that the "inquiry into illegally disclosed confidential case information is to mitigate bad publicity or improve social worker morale."

Ploehn said she and her employees had a duty to uphold state law and protect confidentiality. The unauthorized release of information, she wrote, "erodes public trust and contributes to the oversimplification of the work that social workers do. In very real ways, this increases the potential for harm to children."

Fujioka's assistant, Ryan Alsop, declined Monday to say how many staff hours were spent on the investigation.

Meanwhile, there were signs that a backlog of child abuse investigations continues to grow and county officials have acknowledged that some children have lived in a Department of Children and Family Services conference room in excess of the 24-hour limit.

Ploehn had pledged to take steps to reduce the backlog in June, after the death of a 2-year-old whose family was under investigation by her department. According to sources familiar with the case, the county's inquiry into allegations of abuse or neglect had been open for 57 days, exceeding the state's 30-day deadline. By the time of Joseph Byrd's death, the backlog had grown so large that state officials granted a temporary extension to L.A. County, giving them 60 days to close inquiries.

Since then, the number of children whose cases have run past the 60-day deadline has grown by 1,000. More than 13,000 children are the subjects of abuse investigations that have been open two months or longer.

Department spokesman Nishith Bhatt blamed the growing backlog on a rise in the number of calls to the county's child abuse hotline.

Yaroslavsky, however, said the backlog resulted from a "management problem" that indicates "the department needs to better manage the resources it has." He said the agency has 35% more social workers than it did seven years ago.

At the same time, department officials acknowledged that they established a makeshift shelter in a conference room near downtown L.A. with cots, food and a nearby shower, violating a state rule that children spend no longer than 24 hours in agency offices.

Bhatt gave varying accounts of the number of children who had stayed in the shelter and for how long, first saying that "about 20" extended stays occurred since 2009 and that no child spent more than two days in the conference room.

But he later said that 31 extended stays occurred in the room since January 2009, with one child spending five days there before social workers found the child a place to live.

Officials first pledged to address the issue of holding children in makeshift areas in 2003. Two years later, after reports of another 100 children kept too long in temporary quarters, officials renewed promises to fix the problem.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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