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L.A. County supervisors call for study of child risk assessment tool after boy is found dead in closet

Yonatan Daniel Aguilar
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 on Tuesday called for the study and reassessment of county tools meant to measure children’s risk of abuse in response to the death last month of an 11-year-old boy found in a closet.

The supervisors unanimously passed the motion by Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas that calls for the county’s Office of Child Protection and the Department of Children and Family Services to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a computerized program called Structured Decision Making, or SDM. The tool, which uses a list of multiple-choice questions, calculates the level of risk of abuse or neglect for a child: low, moderate, high or very high.

“We don’t want this boy’s life to be in vain,” Antonovich said.

Case records released to the Los Angeles Times by DCFS showed that 11-year-old Yonatan Daniel Aguilar’s risk of abuse had been marked “high” four times from 2009 to 2012 by the program. His family had been the subject of six prior reports to DCFS, dating from 2002. 

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

“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 motion says.

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

“The question is, where was there a breakdown?” Antonovich said.

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The case, he said, raises questions about whether Yonatan should have been taken from his mother and what happened to him in the years after social workers determined he was safe. The Los Angeles Police Department also was alerted over the years to multiple reports of possible abuse regarding the boy but declined to launch an investigation. 

Kathy Park, chief executive of the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, said during public comments that SDM was not the problem in Yonatan’s case because it repeatedly said he was at high risk. She said supervisors needed to find out why the program’s recommendations repeatedly were not acted upon and whether that was happening in other cases. 

“The loss of this child is a clear failure,” she said. “A failure to take multiple reports seriously.”

Yonatan, according to DCFS officials and police, fell off the county’s radar after 2012, when he is believed to have been in Mexico. There were no other reports about him, and DCFS does not have the legal right to inquire about a child without a report.

Ridley-Thomas said the county is “well behind the times” in training its child protection workers and providing them with the proper tools to do their job.

“This area of predictive analytics — we’re just not where we ought to be,” Ridley-Thomas said of the county’s risk assessment tools. “We haven’t put enough energy into it intellectually or otherwise.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that although she welcomes more information about SDM and other programs, Yonatan’s death “wasn’t necessarily a failure of the SDM tool” because it did give him a high risk of abuse before social workers decided he was not at risk. She said she wanted to know how much discretion was left to the social workers when such tools are used.

“I could never, never diminish how important this death is to us,” Kuehl said. “But I am also so grateful for all the children that have been removed from these horrible situations, for whom we’ve found foster families, for  whom we’re trying to care.… Sometimes the tools have worked, and many times social workers’ judgment has worked.”

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Supervisors questioned the training of the people inputting information into the SDM tool and whether the various county agencies that deal with child protection properly communicate with one another. 

Michael Nash, who formerly oversaw the Los Angeles juvenile court system and now heads the county’s new Office of Child Protection, said he welcomed the motion and “the opportunity to see how we as a county assess risk.” 

DCFS has been using SDM tools to assess both safety and risk since about 2003, said Armand Montiel, a department spokesman. Factors such as there being multiple children in a home and prior referrals are heavily weighted by SDM, even when reports of abuse or neglect are unsubstantiated, he said.

The motion that passed Tuesday requires the Office of Child Protection and DCFS to report back to supervisors in 60 days about the use of SDM, what alternatives are available and the efficacy of predictive analytics for child welfare.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson


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