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After boy’s death, L.A. County supervisors to consider reevaluating tool that calculates child abuse risk

The emaciated body of Yonatan Daniel Aguilar, 11, was found in a closet in his family’s Echo Park home.
The emaciated body of Yonatan Daniel Aguilar, 11, was found in a closet in his family’s Echo Park home.
(KTLA-TV Channel 5)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, responding to the death of a severely malnourished boy who was found dead in a closet last month, is considering a revamp of the county program intended to measure children’s risk of abuse.

Case records released to the Los Angeles Times by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services show that 11-year-old Yonatan Daniel Aguilar’s risk of abuse had been marked as “high” four times from 2009 to 2012 by the computerized program, called Structured Decision Making, or SDM.

“Evidence suggests that there may be potential shortcomings inherent in the SDM tool which may provide unclear guidance and the ability to override results,” the supervisors’ motion states. Yonatan’s death, they wrote, “is seemingly a tragic case of severe abuse over a prolonged period of time allegedly at the hands of the child’s mother.”

Yonatan’s emaciated body weighed just 34 pounds when he was found beneath a blanket in a closet in his family’s Echo Park home. His mother, Veronica Aguilar, has been charged with murder and child abuse resulting in his death.

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Yonatan’s family had been the subject of six prior reports to DCFS, dating back to 2002. Social workers calculated the family’s risk with SDM, which uses a list of multiple-choice questions to provide a level of risk: low, moderate, high or very high.

Case records show that the program several times recommended that social workers “promote” reports about Yonatan to open cases, but that social workers declined to do so, saying the reports were inconclusive or unfounded.

DCFS spokespeople siaid that factors such as there being multiple children in a home and prior referrals are weighted heavily by SDM, even when reports of abuse or neglect are unsubstantiated. Critics say the program mechanizes a decision-making process that only human beings can fully comprehend and fails to take full advantage of social workers’ experience and intuition.

The motion, written by supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas, calls for the county’s Office of Child Protection, in consultation with DCFS, to identify the weaknesses of SDM, explore alternatives and report on the efficacy of predictive analytics for child safety.

If approved, the motion would require those departments to report back to supervisors in 60 days. The supervisors will discuss the motion Tuesday.

“We are always looking to make improvements to the safety and well-being of children within DCFS,” said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich. “This is another opportunity to examine and explore other systems to see if we can improve them.”

Armand Montiel, a DCFS spokesman, said in a statement that the department would “welcome the opportunity to work with the Office of Child Protection and to report back.”

DCFS, he said, has been using SDM tools to assess both safety and risk since about 2003. The safety assessment is based on a social worker’s investigation into whether the child has actually been abused or neglected, and the risk assessment is partially based on demographic factors, such as the number and ages of children in the family, he said.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson


UPDATES:

1:13 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Armand Montiel, a spokesman for L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services.

This article was originally published at 11:55 a.m.


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