Deaths of 2 children are tied to lapses in L.A. County’s welfare system
Persistent management lapses and a poor use of technology continue to hobble Los Angeles County’s child welfare system, and two high-profile child fatalities from last year have been newly tied to the breakdowns, according to records and interviews.
A special counsel acting for the Board of Supervisors has found that despite pledges to fix the problems, social workers still do not fully retrieve and evaluate case files electronically during home inspections. Not enough equipment is available, officials contend, and it often doesn’t work.
And county officials have made little progress assigning more experienced social workers to the most difficult jobs. Officials say civil service rules let veterans transfer to less stressful duties.
Both shortcomings played a role in the suicide last year of 11-year-old Jorge Tarin, according to the counsel’s special investigations unit, which was established to identify systemic breakdowns that may contribute to child fatalities.
For months, the Department of Children and Family Services has been under intense scrutiny because more than 70 children have died of maltreatment over the last three years after coming to the attention of social workers.
As a result of Jorge Tarin’s death, the special counsel recently issued a confidential update to supervisors. When child welfare officials reacted to the report in a 12-page memo, copies were widely circulated among county officials and obtained by The Times.
In that case, a social worker with just eight months’ experience responded to an emergency hotline call in June 2010 reporting that the youth had tearfully told counselors at his middle school that he wanted to kill himself, that life had become “unbearable” because he was ostracized and suffered beatings at home, according to records.
The county agency had previously removed the fifth-grader from his mother’s care and placed him in foster care because of mistreatment by her and a stepfather. But the child was later returned on the condition that the stepfather not live in the home because the man’s past domestic violence and drug abuse posed a “very high risk.”
The social worker went to Jorge’s Montebello house to investigate on June 8. But because she didn’t have one of the county’s tablet computers, she did not realize that the stepfather — who met her at the door — had been banned from the home. After questioning the child and his parents, the social worker could not confirm any new abuse and she left. Hours later, Jorge fatally hanged himself with a jump rope.
Since The Times reported the incident last July, two social workers have been disciplined for their involvement in the case. In its report, the special counsel said child welfare officials need to reevaluate the minimum requirements for the emergency response social workers who are assigned to investigate hotline calls.
In an interview this month, Jackie Contreras, interim director of the agency, said she was proud that the department had implemented additional training days and coaching opportunities for child abuse investigators. But she acknowledged that efforts to give the toughest jobs to workers with more experience have been stymied.
Usage of computer programs before deciding to remove a child, she said, remains an “expectation” and “not always a reality.”
The job of investigating abuse allegations is shunned by many social workers because of the difficulty and long hours. Once workers achieve the necessary level of experience, they often exercise their right under civil service rules to transfer to other duties. The burnout is especially acute in South Los Angeles, where cases are abundant and often complex, and remote areas of the Antelope Valley.
“We’re exploring the idea of a pay differential for these offices, to possibly lower caseloads there, to recruit people that already live in the communities and want to stay there,” Contreras said.
Beginning two years ago, supervisors issued promises to redeploy the child welfare staff and give them the technological tools they need to get a clearer view of complex cases. “We wouldn’t think of sending soldiers to war carrying jammed rifles,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said early last year.
Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky declined to be interviewed for this report.
The special counsel’s report on Jorge Tarin’s death also found that child welfare officials need to reexamine the use of a computer program called Structured Decision Making, which is designed to measure a child’s risk of maltreatment. Currently, the report said, the program is used “improperly or not at all.”
So that workers could use the software in the field, the department paid $5.9 million for about 2,400 tablet computers in 2007. But they purchased only 400 wireless cards that allow the devices to operate remotely. As a result, the technology largely went unused and the tablets remained on social workers’ desks.
Then-agency Director Trish Ploehn later explained that the devices had been purchased without first testing the system and that the department realized early in the rollout that the wireless connection was often slow or nonexistent. “We have very good social workers in our department who are not always very good information technology planners,” she said.
Contreras said the department is now considering buying new handheld devices. “Something that is a little more nimble,” she said. “Something that allows them to access information more efficiently.”
Meanwhile, social workers often rely instead on incomplete print-outs and quick scans of their office computer screens before leaving to investigate.
In the case of 2-year-old Deandre Green, a social worker repeatedly went to the wrong address for weeks because a print-out with the correct address in Long Beach was illegible, Contreras said.
The social worker never located Deandre before he was fatally beaten. His mother has since been convicted of felony child abuse, and her boyfriend was convicted of felony assault on a child causing death.
Two county social workers have been disciplined for their involvement in that case and two other temporary workers were dismissed, according to agency spokesman Nishith Bhatt.
Additional steps have also been implemented to raise flags when a child abuse referral includes an address that does not match the welfare rolls, Bhatt said.
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