Deaths from Abuse and Neglect Increase among Children. . .

October 19, 2010

Deaths from Abuse and Neglect Increase among Children under L.A. County Oversight

By Garrett Therolf  |  Los Angeles Times  —

More children have died in each of the last two years from abuse or neglect after being under the eye of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services despite assurances by county officials that the problem was getting better, according to confidential county documents reviewed by The Times.

The number of deaths from abuse and neglect rose from 18 in 2008 to 26 in 2009, and 2010 so far is on track to be even worse, with 21 maltreatment fatalities in the first eight months of the year, according to the figures. The department publicly released some of the case files of child deaths Monday morning after repeated inquiries from The Times but has not yet released the overall statistics, which have been circulating among senior county officials.

The majority of the maltreatment fatalities occurred while county social workers were actively overseeing the child’s welfare or just days or months after they had closed the case for the child, the records show.

The data represent the first time the public has gained access to the department’s accounting of how many children in its care have died of maltreatment. The trend contradicts previous accounts the department had provided to other county officials.

As recently as August, department Director Trish Ploehn provided statistics to the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families showing that the number of maltreatment fatalities had dropped from 18 in 2009 to six in the first seven months of 2010. Her statement was provided to The Times in response to a California Public Records Act request. Ploehn declined repeated requests for an interview for this article.

One of the previously undisclosed child deaths was that of Miaamor Steen, a 5-year-old girl from Inglewood, who was found on Sept. 16 in the bathtub of an extended-stay motel, unconscious and not breathing, police said. The girl’s mother, Jennine Steen, and her boyfriend, Solomon Walters, were arrested on murder charges.

Records indicate that the departments’ child abuse hotline had received two calls about Mia. The most recent investigation was closed about a month before her death, with no finding of abuse. The girl’s father, Donya Steen, said he made one of those calls after hearing that Mia was being beaten by her mother.

“Something has gone terribly, terribly haywire in the oversight of these children,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a persistent critic of the department’s handling of child deaths.

Yaroslavsky questioned whether the department’s drive to reduce the number of children removed from their families and placed in foster care has led it to leave too many children in unsafe conditions.

The number of foster children has dropped from 52,000 in 1997 to 18,800 this year. During this period, the department has focused on keeping children with their parents by giving the adults drug treatment, parental training and other services.

The drive has been motivated by the belief that a child’s welfare is best served by his or own family, even when that family is somewhat troubled. But the reduction of foster children is also a budgetary imperative.

Under an experimental federal and state program known as the Title IV-E waiver, Los Angeles County agreed to accept a fixed sum for foster care. If costs exceed that amount, the county must pay the difference. If the county spends less than the federal allotment, the county can use the leftover funds to pay for other programs designed to reduce child abuse and neglect.

Yaroslavsky said he agreed that children belong with their own families whenever possible but worried that the department has been so single-minded in its drive to reduce the number of foster children that social workers have been blinded to the fact that some parents are too dangerous to be left in control of children.

“The facts need to dictate how DCFS handles these marginalized children. Evidence can’t be ignored because there is an orthodoxy that says kids need to be kept with their families,” Yaroslavsky said.

Backers of the program have resisted suggestions that the drive to reduce foster care has contributed to a rise in abuse or neglect.

Oscar Ramirez, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, said the state did not believe the IV-E waiver “has led to systemic instances of child maltreatment, but we remain committed to working with anyone who has concerns with the IV-E waiver and have a standing offer to meet to better understand those concerns as the state’s implementation of this waiver continues.”

Others who have studied the waiver program say that earlier indicators were already suggesting problems. Child safety indicators under the waiver have become “an area of concern,” said Charlie Ferguson, a San Jose State University professor and the state’s independent evaluator of the waiver program.

Ferguson said officials had studied data involving children who had not been removed from their homes after an allegation of child abuse had been substantiated. They found that those children experienced an increased rate of substantiated abuse within a year. The rate has increased by 19% since the Title IV-E waiver began in 2007, he said.

Ferguson’s review does not include fatality data because he is reviewing only data that is comparable among all California’s counties and with jurisdictions elsewhere in the country.

Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and one of the state’s leading advocates for abused or neglected children, said she was hesitant to connect the waiver with the rise in child fatalities because she worried that too little information is available.

“What analysis has been done by the department?” she asked. “Have they really looked at this? Have they looked at the experience level of the social workers who handled these cases? If they are ignoring this type of analysis, they are foolish.”

It’s unknown how much analysis has been done, but there is some reason to believe that the department has not diligently collected the raw data needed for such evaluations.

The data on maltreatment fatalities were recently revised under the supervision of the county’s Office of Independent Review. They are part of a larger group of fatalities tracked by the department, which includes children who died of causes other than abuse.

The county’s record-keeping regarding the overall number of such fatalities has been flawed. Last month, for example, the county’s records reviewed by The Times showed that 91 children tracked by the department had died, of a variety of causes, in 2003. This month, the department’s records showed the 2003 fatality figure as 146. The number is subject to further revision, county records showed.

At Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’s urging, the Board of Supervisors ordered Ploehn this month to compile fatality statistics for the last 20 years. The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Don Knabe opposed.

To the extent that the department already has such information, it has been difficult for the public to obtain. At Supervisor Gloria Molina’s behest, the Board of Supervisors asked the county’s Office of Independent Review to look at whether the department was following a state law that mandates the release of case files when a child dies of abuse or neglect.

Michael Gennaco, the office’s chief attorney, found the department inappropriately hid dozens of cases from public view. Whether the failure to make the files public was intentional or not remains under review. At the time, Ploehn said she was in full agreement with the report, but it took a month and a half before the department had a single case file ready for review.

In a written statement, Ploehn said, “although there has been a considerable workload associated with the release of these documents, we do acknowledge that the release of these files has taken longer than we had hoped — and the public has consequently had to wait longer than it should.”

Two senior department managers have alleged that the department deliberately concealed information, and Gennaco said he is investigating their claims. Thus far, however, he has not verified an intent to hide, and he suggested that the workers responsible for public disclosure may have been unaware that state law mandated disclosure.

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