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Are the recent spate of deaths at DCFS coincidental, or part of a larger pattern of failure?

Are the recent spate of deaths at DCFS coincidental, or part of a larger pattern of failure?
Concepcion Ramirez, left, grandmother of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, weeps at the end of funeral services held at Saint Junipero Serra Parish in Quartz Hills. (Los Angeles Times)

Tragically, yet not necessarily surprisingly, young Anthony Avalos’ story is not unique.

The 10-year-old boy died on June 21, allegedly after severe and sustained abuse at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, and following dozens of calls to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. But even before Anthony was buried, another child in another part of L.A. County — a 2-year-old boy identified by county officials as Damian V. — died on July 3, also after a history of abuse or neglect reports to the county. And an as-yet unnamed 2-year-old girl who also was on the DCFS’ radar very nearly died on July 9. Details of each case are being withheld pending investigation by the department and by law enforcement.

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Whether this unfortunate cluster of tragedies reveals a serious problem at the department remains to be seen.

The death of a child from suspected abuse or neglect is a horrific tragedy twice over — first, and most obviously, because of the death itself, sometimes following unimaginable physical and emotional torture inflicted by exactly those adults on whom children should be able to depend for love, support and protection.

The human mind is quick to see patterns where sometimes there is just coincidence. Yet sometimes there really is a pattern.


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The secondary tragedy is somewhat more convoluted. We in the news media report the deaths and near fatalities because they're news (even though they are to be expected and come at no greater clip in L.A. than in other jurisdictions) and because people who pay taxes to support criminal justice, child protection, public health and safety systems have every right to know how well those systems are or are not working. Readers and others who learn of the abuse become angry, and they target much of their wrath at their elected leaders and social workers who didn't intervene at precisely the right time. County supervisors demand action — although it isn't always clear what kind. Just — something. Pass a law. Fire someone. Lock someone up.

Or disrupt the department so much that its only focus is on child death numbers, even if that means a period of unnecessarily snatching more kids away from their families "in an abundance of caution" and sending them to foster care, where, as demonstrated in one study after another, too many are put on a track toward dismal failure in school, homelessness, substance abuse, crime and poverty.

But at least they're alive? Certainly. The trick is to be able to identify those few times when removal is necessary, without wrecking the lives of kids who would have been better off staying put.

The human mind is quick to see patterns where sometimes there is just coincidence. Yet sometimes there really is a pattern, and while the deaths of Anthony and Damian (and the near-death of the girl whose name has not yet been released) must be investigated individually, the spate of incidents within a short period of time requires the county to search for any systemic connection. It may be just unfortunate timing that in addition to these incidents, a jury on Thursday awarded $45.4 million to a girl who was repeatedly molested, beginning at age 7, by men invited into the home by her mother. County social workers had closed the case without notifying law enforcement of the abuse.

And it may be just a further stroke of bad luck that there is a court date next month for social workers and supervisors who were criminally charged in connection with their alleged failures in the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who died in 2013. Last month, Gabriel's mother was sentenced to life in prison for the killing. Her boyfriend was sentenced to death.

"This is hard and even feels unfair," department Director Bobby Cagle told social workers in a letter discussing Anthony's death, which came just as Gabriel's case approached closure.

And the juxtaposition of all these incidents may indeed be unfair and pure coincidence, although Cagle has put together an emergency plan to seek out system failures. He has expressed concerns about the size of social workers’ caseloads, the relative inexperience of some supervisors and the ratio of supervisors to social workers.

All these things were mentioned four years ago in a searing report by a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which the county Board of Supervisors convened after Gabriel's death. Even then, there were already shelves of dusty reports laying out the department's problems, and the commission's report may be just one more. Along with his own plan, Cagle has vowed to take a second look at the commission report and see what recommendations were never implemented. That's a good place to start.

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