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L.A. County may have failed to disclose about 60 abuse and neglect deaths of children, auditor says

August 31, 2010 |  1:23 pm

About 60 child deaths tied in confidential court filings to abuse or neglect by Los Angeles County child protective services workers are under review because they were not disclosed publicly in potential violation of state law, according to an independent auditor.

Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, presented his findings Tuesday to the L.A. County supervisors who had asked for the inquiry after questioning why officials had not listed the suicide of an 11-year-old Montebello boy with a long history of abuse and neglect.

Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn told supervisors Tuesday that “there is no excuse” for the omissions. Ploehn said until last week she was unaware of the problem, which she attributed at least in part to a disconnect between two parts of her department.  

If the 60 cases are verified to be inappropriately sealed, they would more than double the known number of children who, since 2008, have died of abuse and neglect after their families came under the scrutiny of the Department of Children and Family Services

To date, the department had acknowledged only 38 such deaths since state law requiring disclosure went into effect more than two years ago.

“Even 15 would be a lot. Twenty would be a lot. Sixty would be an awful lot,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Ploehn said her department will soon release records for each abuse or neglect fatality as required by the state public disclosure law. For months, The Times has been denied repeated requests for such records.

In addition to the inaccurate picture provided to the public, supervisors’ aides said that the 60 deaths also escaped the attention of the county’s child death investigator, Rosemarie Belda. Belda is responsible for recommending reforms to address any systemic issues at play in the deaths.

It was unclear if any social workers were disciplined for any errors that may have contributed to the 60 fatalities.

Supervisor Don Knabe said he opposed efforts to correct the errors, despite the law’s mandate.

“I do not agree with the recommendation that we have to go revisit these cases,” Knabe said.

Nevertheless, the board ordered county staff to come up with a plan to implement all of the recommendations proposed by Gennaco. Among them:

  • The release of all records inappropriately concealed
  • An end to the department's practice of asking law enforcement agencies to block disclosure before investigators have reviewed the records
  • An independent auditor to regularly evaluate child service department determinations regarding the disclosure of fatality information

Under an approved motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, staff was ordered to report to the board within 30 days on the implementation of Gennaco’s recommendations and on a quarterly basis thereafter.

-- Garrett Therolf at the Hall of Administration

Read more: Los Angeles County didn't report child deaths