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Death of 2-year-old boy prompts LAPD investigation

Death of 2-year-old boy prompts LAPD investigation
A family photo of Damien Ventura taken two days before his death. (Elizabeth Ventura)

Damien Ventura, a healthy, smiling boy who loved dinosaurs, cars and sharks, made a trip to Disneyland and celebrated his upcoming third birthday with a dinosaur piñata early last month, relatives and friends said.

Within days, he had died.

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The Los Angeles Police Department responded to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on the night of July 3. Damien, suspected of being a victim of physical abuse, had been pronounced dead just before 7 p.m., according to his case file with the county Department of Children and Family Services.

No arrests have been made, police said.

Children and Family Services was contacted twice about Damien in January but found insufficient risk to take urgent action, according to documents released by the agency. Police officers were also called to a family home where the child was living in January and March, LAPD records show.

A cause of death has not been released. The case is deferred “pending additional test[s],” Ed Winter, assistant chief of operations for the Department of the Coroner-Medical Examiner, said in an email.

Bobby Cagle, director of Children and Family Services, said in a statement shortly after Damien died that the agency was investigating the boy’s death and cooperating with law enforcement.

The heavily redacted case records released by Children and Family Services show that a mandated reporter — someone required by law to contact authorities when abuse is suspected — called the child protection hotline about Damien on Jan. 19.

A Children and Family Services social worker designated the matter for response within five days, rather than immediately or within three days, the records show.

On Jan. 22, a mandated reporter told child protection authorities that law enforcement had been asked to go to Damien’s mother’s home, the referral report said. That referral was marked as “evaluated out,” which means that it did not proceed, either because the allegation, if true, would not rise to the level of child abuse or because it was a duplicate.

A redacted police report that is part of Damien’s case file indicates two officers sought to make contact with a parent on Jan. 22 “to assist with investigation and to check on the welfare of the minor.”

A medical report from that day included in the case file described the findings of an examination of suspected child physical abuse and neglect. Some results were marked as “within normal limits,” but others describing the condition of his skin, head, eyes, ears, back, buttocks and extremities were redacted.

A “safety assessment” — an evaluation of immediate or imminent danger to the child — conducted by a social worker identified no safety threats in Damien’s household and found that there were no children “likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm,” the case record shows.

A “risk assessment” evaluating the potential for future harm found that there had been drug use by a primary or secondary caregiver “that interferes with family functioning” during the previous 12 months, the case record shows. It also found that a primary or secondary caregiver had had one or more arrests.

The risk was rated “moderate,” a classification that does not typically trigger court intervention or provision of services by child welfare authorities. The recommendation was “do not promote” to a case, according to the assessment.

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Police declined to comment on the case other than to say it is an ongoing investigation.

Cagle, the director of Children and Family Services, said in an interview that a social worker in Damien’s case had been placed on desk duty but declined to identify the worker, specify the reason or answer questions about the worker’s disciplinary history.

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