• Dozens of Child Deaths Misclassified; Supervisors Disagree About Intent


    By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO

    LOS ANGELES (CNS) – In as many as 60 cases, Los Angeles County officials
    failed to follow the law that requires them to make public child fatalities
    resulting from abuse or neglect, a county attorney said today.
    The vast majority of cases of child deaths handled by the Department of
    Children and Family Services should be classified as resulting from abuse and
    neglect, but dozens are not, and staffers within the department often disagree
    in their assessment, according to a report by the county’s Office of
    Independent Review.
    State Senate Bill 39 provides for the release of information within five
    days when the death of child “is reasonably suspected to be the result of
    abuse or neglect.’ Otherwise, information is withheld as confidential.
    Mike Gennaco, chief attorney for the county’s Office of Independent
    Investigation, told the Board of Supervisors today there is an “apparent
    disconnect’ within DCFS that has led to “inconsistent conclusions’
    concerning the causes of such deaths.
    DCFS Director Trish Ploehn said the contradictory outcomes were due to a
    lack of communication between two groups of staffers charged with differing
    priorities. She said it was not intentional.
    Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky suggested last week that the classification
    of cases was being manipulated to limit public access to information and
    undercount child deaths on the department’s watch.
    But Ploehn said risk management staffers were focused on the narrow
    legal issue of direct causality, which led to fewer classifications as SB39
    cases. Social workers handling cases in the field are instead focused on
    protecting the siblings of the victims from abuse, said Ploehn. An SB39
    classification is required to effectively argue for custody of those siblings
    in family court.
    Ploehn said the department planned to go back and reconcile the
    differences in classification between internal department documents and
    documents filed in family court, a recommendation of the OIR report.
    “I actually agree with (the OIR report) 100 percent,’ said Ploehn.
    Supervisor Don Knabe tried to bolster Ploehn’s assertion that there was
    no intent to hide information or mislead the public.
    “There is this notion that is being perpetrated by the media that the
    county has been non-responsive’ to demands for information,’ said Knabe. “
    … in your review, did you find any reason to believe that there has been
    reluctance on the part of the county to release information on child welfare
    cases within the guidelines of the law?’ he asked Gennaco.
    “I found no intent not to release information should have been
    released,’ Gennaco said.
    Yaroslavsky asked Gennaco to qualify his response.
    “… I don’t think that you have all the information that you’re going
    to have going forward,’ the supervisor said. “ … there are some reasons to
    believe that this is not just an accidental disconnect (where) the left hand
    didn’t know what the right hand was doing.’
    It seems likely that most of the cases at issue will ultimately be
    deemed to be SB39 cases, based on Gennaco’s comments. Unless several years had
    passed between an act of abuse and the child’s death and the death itself was
    obviously accidental, like a “child was struck by lightning,’ the attorney
    seemed to say the death would be deemed to be the result of the earlier abuse.
    Supervisor Gloria Molina said that many abused children are later
    returned to their parents. She said a child who was abused at age 3 or 6 and is
    “now 17 and killed by a gang member’ would be the sort of apparently rare
    case that would not be deemed to be an SB39 case and subject to public
    disclosure.
    Supervisor Don Knabe disagreed with the plan to reconsider past cases.
    “I do not agree that we need to go back and revisit all of these
    cases,’ said Knabe, who said it would be unfair to drag families through that
    process.
    Also at issue are blanket holds placed on information by law enforcement
    officers.
    The OIR report said the practice led to the “virtual paralysis of the
    statute’s intent.’ In the report, Gennaco recommended that DCFS personnel and
    law enforcement work together to “develop a more tailored and precise
    approach’ to withholding information that is relevant to criminal
    investigations.
    Board members expressed concern over discussing the issue without
    disclosing something that should be kept private.
    “It will be so much easier if you can have this conversation in closed
    session rather than in public,’ advised County Counsel Andrea Ordin.
    One of her concerns seemed to be a pending lawsuit against the county in
    the case of Jorge Tarin, though she took care not to name names.
    Jorge, 11, hanged himself just hours after a social worker visited his
    home to interview the boy and assess his threats of suicide.
    Jorge’s death was not classified as the result of abuse or neglect,
    according to Yaroslavsky, although the Los Angeles Time reported that the boy
    had previously been removed from his mother’s custody, and his stepfather was
    legally barred from the home based on a history of drug abuse and domestic
    violence.
    Jorge told a school counselor that his mother beat him with a hanger and
    a shoe while his stepfather held him down, the newspaper reported, citing a
    reference to county records.
    The Times has published a series of investigative reports on deaths,
    like Jorge’s, linked to DCFS and made a number of requests for additional
    information to the country.
    It seems likely that more information will be forthcoming if prior cases
    are reclassified.
    Based on a late-breaking proposal by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the
    board directed DCFS, together with county investigators, counsel and executive
    office staffers, to return to the board within 30 days with a plan for
    implementing the OIR recommendations and a process for managing disclosure of
    information.

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