Op-Ed: Child Deaths Cannot Be Tolerated, Especially When They Can Be Prevented

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas on The Huffington Post:

An abused or neglected child dies in Los Angeles County almost once every three weeks.

There were 18 such deaths in 2009, my first year in office, and four more in the first three months of 2010. Our child death crisis is rooted in complex societal problems, from poverty and substance abuse to inadequate mental health care and generational patterns of abuse.

But it is also exacerbated by more simple failures of public policy. One of these is the lack of a shared database that would give social workers and others an early warning system to get children out of danger.

The children who have perished following abuse and neglect had each had some kind of contact with our Dept. of Children and Family Services. Some were in foster care, others died at their parents’ homes.

In too many of these cases, a County case worker had visited the children’s homes without full knowledge of potential dangers. Sometimes, they were unaware of mental health problems of parents; or they did not know an adult in the home had a criminal record.

Case workers were not informed of such factors, which could have warranted removing children from dangerous homes before deadly incidents occurred. In one recent case, investigators, following up on an abuse complaint, repeatedly visited the wrong address, over several days.

This is because the County is stuck with a system that combines aged technology with laws focused more on shielding government from liability than protecting children from abuse or neglect.


Supervisor Ridley-Thomas' Statement Regarding Recent Rise In Child Abuse And Neglect Cases

The spike in recent months of fatal child abuse and neglect cases shows we must intensify our efforts to save our children.

There is no quick fix to the tremendous societal problems underlying the crisis, which include extreme poverty, multi-generational patterns of abuse and an overburdened child welfare system.

But there are problems within the governmental infrastructure – overseen by the Board of Supervisors — that we can solve.

One of these is the failure to create a strong database that social workers and others could use to better spot dangerous situations. Such a computerized “early warning system” could, for example, give social workers evidence of child abuse gathered by law enforcement officers.

For more than a decade, County officials and the Board have said social workers, law enforcement, mental health and other officials need to be able to share information through a common network.

After years of sluggish progress, the Family and Children’s Index (FCI) began operation in 2005, based on 1990’s technology. The outdated system is severely limited and has not had an impact in preventing fatal abuse in Los Angeles County.

I believe better systems exist. Various objections are cited to implementing such systems in Los Angeles County, from privacy concerns to assertions that state laws do not allow methods used successfully in other parts of the country.

This is not a time for excuses. If our state laws need to be amended they can be. We can balance privacy and safety.


Art Contest for Children, Youth, and Elders with Experience in California's Courts or Child Welfare System


More information (PDF)

Video: Supervisors Question DCFS Director About Child Deaths

NBC News report from Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting about how to keep at risk kids safe from abuse.

VIDEO: Investigation Demanded After Child Deaths (KABC)

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas calls for an auditor controller and district attorney investigation into the recent deaths of three minors in the foster care system.