Putting a check on deaths of foster kids

A new L.A. County report on the deaths of children who come into contact with its foster care system is, in one sense, depressingly unsurprising. It highlights with startling precision the short, brutal lives that so many of this county's young people endure. Year after year, tens of thousands of children fall under the scrutiny of the Department of Children and Family Services — some glancingly or peripherally, others in more sustained ways — and 200 or so of those children die annually, victims of accidents, natural causes or, too often, suicide or murder.

The children who die follow certain patterns. They are more likely to be Latino or black than white. They are often infants — of the 175 who died in 2010, 47 did not live to their second birthday — or in their teenage years, when gangs exert their fatal force. They tend to live — and die — in the county's poor neighborhoods, and they often are children of adults who themselves endured abuse as young people. Of the 32 children who died with open cases in the department last year, 20 had been returned to their homes, and 12 were in foster or group homes or specialized facilities such as psychiatric centers.

Those are sobering findings, but not particularly useful ones. They remind any reader that poor, abused children are at the mercy of forces beyond their control, and that many simply do not make it through. What those numbers do not say, however, is how the county could do a better job of protecting those under its care.

According to the new report, 43 children with some connection to DCFS were the victims of homicide last year, eight more committed suicide, and 22 died in accidents. (An additional 18 died of natural causes, and 84 deaths were either undetermined, pending or ruled not a case for the coroner.) How many of those were preventable? Was there anything the county could have done differently that might have given those young people a chance at adulthood?

The report does not answer those critical questions, but advocates and county supervisors are pressing on various fronts. The Board of Supervisors recently replaced the head of DCFS, giving the agency a chance to start fresh. And Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) is gamely pushing a bill that would open dependency courts, where decisions about foster care are made, to public scrutiny, offering that critical piece of the system a chance to prove itself under genuine accountability. Those are promising developments; with time, perhaps the sad numbers revealed in this report will give way to more optimistic statistics.

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