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Supervisors demand answers on underreporting of child deaths

August 31, 2010 |  4:40 pm

About 60 child deaths tied to abuse or neglect in confidential court filings by Los Angeles County child protective services workers are under review, and at least 22 had not been disclosed publicly, a 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 county Board of Supervisors. County officials initially said the 60 cases identified were in addition to 38 previously disclosed by the Department of Children and Family Services under a state law that went into effect in 2008.

Later in the day, officials pulled back from the figures, saying it was unclear exactly how many child deaths will be subject to public disclosure. The shifting numbers were another indication of county officials’ confusion about how many children have died of abuse or neglect after their families came under the scrutiny of child welfare workers.

Officials repeatedly referred to the 60 cases as new at Tuesday’s board meeting and Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn never disputed that number. Nishish Bhatt, a department spokesman, could not immediately say how many cases had been identified.

The discrepancies were discovered by comparing the child death lists released by county officials to confidential court filings in cases where social workers had removed surviving siblings from homes where deaths occurred.

Supervisor Gloria Molina had asked for the independent inquiry after her colleague Zev Yaroslavsky questioned why officials had not listed the suicide of an 11-year-old Montebello boy who told authorities he planned to kill himself to end beatings and abuse. Ploehn, who took heavy breaths and was visibly uncomfortable under tough questioning by Yaroslavsky, said Tuesday that “there is no excuse” for the discrepancies.

Ploehn said that until last week she was unaware of the problem, which she attributed at least in part to a disconnect between two units of her department. Yaroslavsky, however, suggested that he has information that contradicts her assertion. “There are some reasons to believe that this is not just an accidental disconnect,” he said, declining to provide more detail.

-- Garrett Therolf