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L.A. County child abuse cases down but infant mortality up, report finds

An increase in Los Angeles County's infant mortality rate in 2007 erased much of the progress made since 2003, according to an annual report released Tuesday.

The report from the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect is based on statistics gathered by child abuse experts, law enforcement and social welfare agencies. The report analyzes the deaths of children who were killed by caregivers, committed suicide or died in accidents, and tracks overall abuse reports.

Among the findings:

  • From 2004 to 2008, reports of physical, mental and sexual abuse and severe neglect dropped 7.2%, from 22,653 to 21,016.
  • Seventeen children committed suicide in 2008, a significant increase from the 10 suicides in 2007, but still lower than the 15-year average of 20.4 suicides per year.
  • Infant mortality increased from 4.9 to 5.3 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007, the most recent year for which complete data are available. Prematurity, low birth weight, maternal substance abuse and inadequate prenatal care are believed to be key causes.

“This report also recognizes an increased use of methamphetamine, and that may be one of the most important causes behind this rise,” said Deanne Tilton Durfee, the council's executive director.

Methamphetamine was also blamed for an increase in the number of children who were dependents of the juvenile court system. More than 13,000 children were brought into the system in 2008, while 10,508 left.

“Whether the increase in the total number of children in system is a one-time variance or a trend remains to be seen,” the report said.

The council recommended alcohol and drug testing for people in contact with a child who dies under suspicious circumstances. Such data, the authors said, would help experts better understand the role of substance abuse in such deaths.

Council members also backed long-awaited improvements to information technology so child abuse investigators have access to case histories from law enforcement agencies, local hospitals and schools.

-- Garrett Therolf

Read complete coverage of this issue in the Times Investigation: Innocents Betrayed

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