Shock, but no basis for surprise

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

One county supervisor expressed shock, another fired off a press release demanding an investigation. But Monday’s revelations that 14 children died last year as the result of abuse or neglect despite being under the watch of child welfare authorities should have come as no surprise to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

In 2007, the number was 12, according to figures released Tuesday. In 2006, the number was 14. The types of systemic failures that led to the deaths also were the same.

“The only difference really between 2006 and ’07 on the one hand and 2008 on the other is that 2008 is public and it made the front page of the newspaper,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky acknowledged at the board’s regular meeting.

Turning to Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn, he asked: “This is not news to you or to us, correct?”

“That’s correct. I know about the deaths and you’ve known about the deaths,” Ploehn replied.

Indeed, the supervisors were notified every time a child who had at least one prior contact with Family Services died. Case after case landed on their desks in which children died despite multiple complaints against their parents and repeated visits from social workers. Many of the investigations, however, did not substantiate the earlier allegations.

In addition to the 14 cases where abuse or neglect was determined to cause the deaths in 2008, supervisors were notified of 154 deaths that occurred the same year from other causes, including accidents, shootings, and natural or undetermined reasons.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who Monday had called the 14 deaths shocking, said Tuesday that some of the others might also have been caused by abuse, neglect or county errors.

In some of the cases, she said, “you’re still looking at not-high-quality social work.”

Child welfare officials say they have repeatedly recommended a key reform: more social workers.

“In our budget every year,” Ploehn said, “we have made it clear that the ideal is to have a caseload of between 12 and 15 children per social worker. That’s what the research bears out. That’s what they have in New York City. We are unable to have that caseload because we would have to have over 1,000 new social workers hired, and obviously, in this budget situation, that’s impossible.”

Yaroslavsky responded, “Of course it’s not possible, and so you do the next best thing. . . . You try to have some organized information about your caseload so that the social worker you send to a person’s home has as much information about the background and the history of that household.”

But confidentiality rules stand in the way of developing a computer system that would allow social workers to efficiently share data with other agencies so they might learn about a parent’s criminal history or a child’s unexplained injuries. Adjusting those rules would require legislation.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose motion to launch an investigation into the 14 deaths was approved Tuesday, lamented the county’s slow progress. “Why is it taking so long?. . . . I don’t understand why it takes so long to make recommendations when as we speak there are children right now who are asking for help and not receiving it,” he said.

Adelina Sorkin, a member of the county’s commission for children and families, said recommendations had reached supervisors’ desks years before.

“In 2001, we made a report to the department as well as this board regarding the issue of sharing information,” she said. “We have missed opportunities. . . . We have to move faster.”

The issue has only now gained momentum with the release of 14 files Monday detailing the circumstances that led to children’s deaths in 2008. The information was released in response to a California Public Records Act request by The Times. Child welfare officials said Tuesday that 53 social workers are assigned to “desk jobs” pending investigation of policy breakdowns involved in 10 of the 14 deaths. Officials said information was not immediately available regarding any discipline for 2007 or 2006 cases.

The 2007 deaths follow a similar pattern to those in 2008, according to additional records obtained by The Times.

One involved a 2-year-old boy whose mother said she found him unconscious after he made a “gurgling sound,” according to a child fatality questionnaire submitted by the county to the state.

The boy was pronounced dead at a hospital, where the attending physician discounted the mother’s explanation, noting that the child had “swelling to his face, a hematoma and swelling to the side of his head, bruising to his forehead and cheeks, red marks covering his nose, a distended abdomen” and small scars on his forearm and knee.

“He also had what was determined to be a healing femur fracture and his upper teeth were missing,” according to the report.

The dead boy’s family had had four previous contacts with county child welfare workers, who in August 2004 substantiated an allegation of general neglect.

A month later, an allegation of physical abuse was deemed inconclusive.