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Child deaths rise among those monitored by L.A. County family services, records show

Dcfs The number of children dying of abuse or neglect after involvement by Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services has steadily increased since 2008, according to confidential documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

The data represent the first time the public has gained access to the department’s year-over-year maltreatment fatality trends. According to information circulated recently among senior county officials, the number of children who have died of abuse or neglect by their caregivers rose from 18 in 2008 to 26 in 2009. This year, the county had recorded 21 maltreatment fatalities in the year's first eight months.

“Something has gone terribly, terribly haywire in the oversight of these children,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, responding to the figures.

The majority of the maltreatment fatalities occurred while DCFS was actively overseeing the child’s welfare or just days or months after social workers closed the case for the child, the records show.

The maltreatment fatalities, which were recently revised under the supervision of the county’s Office of Independent Review but have yet to be released in response to public inquiries, are part of a larger group of fatalities tracked by the department.

According to those confidential figures, also reviewed by The Times, the total number of children who died of any cause after DCFS contact rose from 97 in 2004 to 163 in 2009. The rise was driven largely by a sustained increase in homicides, from 19 in 2004 to 55 in 2009.

The department’s bookkeeping of records for fatalities before 2008, however, has been flawed. For instance, the department’s records last month reflected the total number of fatalities for 2003 as being 91. This month, the department’s records said the 2003 fatality figure was 146 and was subject to further revision.

Yaroslavsky questioned whether the department’s drive to reduce the number of children removed from their families and placed in foster care has led the county to leave too many children in unsafe conditions.

The number of foster children has dropped from 52,000 in 1997 to 18,800 this year. During this period, the department has focused on increased drug treatment, parental training and other services meant to allow children to remain safely with their own parents.

The drive has been motivated by the belief that a child’s welfare is best served by his or own family, even when that family is somewhat troubled. But the reduction of foster children is also a budgetary imperative.

Under an experimental federal and state program known as the Title IV-E waiver, Los Angeles County agreed to accept a fixed sum for foster care. If it exceeds that amount, the county must pay the difference. If it spends less, the county can use the savings to reduce child abuse and neglect as it sees fit.

Yaroslavsky said he agreed with the precept that children belong with their own families whenever possible, but he said he worried that the department has been so single-minded in its drive to reduce the number of foster children that social workers have been blinded to the dangers parents sometimes pose.

“The facts need to dictate how DCFS handles these marginalized children. Evidence can’t be ignored because there is a orthodoxy that says kids need to be kept with their families,” Yaroslavsky said.

The numbers contrast sharply with the DCFS’s earlier statements about child deaths. This summer, director Trish Ploehn released statistics to the L.A. County Commission for Children and Families showing that the number of maltreatment fatalities was decreasing. Ploehn had also told The Times in an interview she believed the numbers were going down. She declined requests to comment for this article.

In a statement released Monday, Ploehn said: "Due to the fluid nature of these determinations and the large number of cases to be processed, the release of these files has taken longer than we had hoped -- and the public has consequently had to wait longer than we would have liked. We are implementing processes so that, moving forward, we are able to release information to the public, when requested under [the state’s disclosure law], in prescribed timeframes.”

-- Garrett Therolf

Photo: Trish Ploehn. Times file.

Full coverage: Times investigation of child deaths.

Comments () | Archives (25)

The number of children dying of abuse or neglect each year after involvement by Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services could be - and should be - immediately reduced to zero.


Get the government completely out of the parenting business, period.

We do not live in a perfect world. Sorry about that. But more government is rarely, if ever, a solution.

Strict adherence to the principle of "first do no harm" would eliminate at least 95 percent of all government programs.

I was a foster mom for fifteen years and eventually adopted my two children. I worked full-time and had a full-time housekeeper to cook and clean house. I saw to the children's homework, I went to school functions, took them to medical exams and therapist appointments. I treated my foster children like my own, with love and affection, yet I felt harassed by every new social worker who got my caseload, who thought my housekeeper was the actual caretaker and that I was just warehouseing them which was absolutely not true as the children told them. Some of these social workers had a screw lose and were very odd individuals. For example, one social worker would take my 13 year old foster child out after school to McDonalds and sing show tunes to her at the top of her lungs causing my foster child to be embarrassed and humiliated in public. County social workers need to visit the foster homes more often and pay serious attention.

One more time...Board of Supervisors please tell us...How many more children need to die before you fire Ploehn and her "leadership team" and bring in professionals who know what they are doing? Just give us a number...how many more dead kids???

There's gotta be a way to entice people away from IVF and towards foster parenting.

We have to move away from the belief that ALL children are better off with their parents. We are using children as pawns due to this belief. Many deaths in the news lately have occurred after parents get their kids back from foster care after being charged with causing intentional harm. This should be a one strike law. If you intentionally hurt your child you loose your kids. Period. One woman broke both her daughter's arms, went to jail and still got custody back. Now that girl's sister is dead, at the hand of her mother. The state also allows the children to wait in foster homes with the hope that the biological parents get their act together. I know one child in foster care now for two years and the court allows the parents to extend the deadline so they dont loose custody. The child should be adopted to a loving family. Two years to get their act together, two years that baby sits in foster care in limbo. Not fair to the child.

The whole DCFS system is incompetent. Instead of fixing the problems county officials are more concerned of the information reaching the public. Children are dying!! This needs to stop now.

"Windfall"......You are correct but the government's motto seem to be, "Let's try this program and THEN we'll see what the unintended consequences are..."
They simply don't know the difference between "change" vs. "improvement".

To the extent that these data are evidence of anything, it is that Garrett Therolf’s reporting, and Zev Yaroslavsky’s demagoguery, may be endangering children. Ever since Therolf began his crusade to tear apart more families, we’ve warned that foster-care panics, sudden surges in removals of children by workers terrified of being on the front page, are followed by increases in child abuse deaths.

That’s exactly what has happened in Los Angeles County. And that’s almost certainly why this story mentions only the number of children in foster care on any given day – neglecting to mention that the number of children *taken away* from their parents over the course of a year *increased* in 2009 – thanks to the foster-care panic. The number almost certainly is increasing again in 2010. Even before the panic, the number of children torn from their families in LA County has increased every year but one since 2004.

None of this is hindsight. Based on what we’ve seen when similar lousy journalism set off similar panics all across the country, we warned more than a year ago that the one discernable pattern in child abuse fatalities is that, during foster care panics, workers have even less time to find children in real danger – so more children die.

Anyone who read the huge New York Times story about Tribune Company owner Sam Zell (available here: http://nyti.ms/aA55NF) knows what kind of journalism Zell wants. Apparently, Garrett Therolf is determined to give it to him – no matter how many children may be endangered in the process.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Mu aunt worked for Child Services Protection in Arizona. She earned just under $40,000 a year, had full benefits, did not have to speak Spanish to get hired, and rented a small house for $550 a month. Her case load was between 6-8. Nine was thought to be too much.

Her California partner earns $45,000 a year, rents similar house for $1,800 a month and carries 12-16 cases each.

My aunt loves kids and cares for them. She cannot imagine how anyone can work that many cases responsibly. She also cannot imagine how they live on their incomes.

It is easy to understand why overworked, underpaid people overlook things. If you want the system to work, you have to find the money needed for the change. Say, the oil extraction tax will provide about 2,1 billion.

For those wanting "the government" get out of parenting: Does that apply to abuse, incest, drug users, alcoholics, those who sell their kids to pornographers and pedophiles, torture and beat them as well?

You consider these kids to be better off with their parents?

How generous of you.

Perhaps you should the place of those kids in those circumstances.

My big question is why has there been so much secrecy in the workings of DCFS?

I can see individual privacy of on-going cases but statistics and full disclosure in cases such as these have nothing to do with privacy. I suspect it has more to do with lack accountability and hiding of incompetence than privacy of the children.

The problem lies with DCFS itself, people are so over burden with outrageous caseloads until they can't hardly accomplish one thing for the sake of another, and when they speak about the complications associated with working such caseloads they are black listed or force not to talk about the issue. All of the high paid adminstrators need to come out of the Ivory towers and get into the field to begin follow-up on what the line staff is talking about. More will die until something drastic is done.

Don't you all get it?? This is about dollars, not the well being of the child. If the child is placed back into the home, then they don't have to pay a foster parent to keep them. You do the math; what does it cost to house (each) child in foster care as oppose to sending them back to their parents?

What does it cost to hire additional social workers to oversee the welfare of these children? It cost a lot of money.

It's such a sad story, but the dollar will also win over the human factor.

For months now I have been reading these articles about this department and although it is very tragic that children die so often due to abuse and negligence, how is ONE overburdened, understaffed, and underfunded government agency supposed to be the catch-all for children at risk for abuse and neglect? Shouldn't preventative services also be provided from law enforcement, schools, health care and mental health agencies, as well as local churches or community agencies??? Also can there finally be an article on the Courts that order some of these parents to get their kids back despite being BAD parents and usually against DCFS's recommendation. Let's be clear about something, it is horrible mothers and fathers that are kiling their children not DCFS.

As I understand it, when accusations of abuse and neglect are made, a social worker investigates, and if actual abuse or neglect is found then some type of action is taken, be it putting kids with relatives, foster homes, or having in-home services with parents. If the kids are found to be needing some services because they are at risk (rather than actual victims) then the family is connected to an outside agency. Because I used to work in law enforcement, I know many very professional, caring, good, and hard-working social workers. Not to say that there isn't a bad apple in the bunch but overall they want to make the best decisions to keep children safe. In a County of over 20 million residents, some children are bound to die but who is really to blame?

Windfall you're an idiot. Clearly you think everything is about "get the government out" except when it involves making abortion illegal, I'm sure. In that case gov't should be involved, right? Its because of people like you who want to make abortion illegal that a lot of unwanted pregnancies in young, stupid, unprepared to be parents people happens. This leads to lack of help/resources for them, frustration, abuse and at times death. So in your opinion, we should just let kids be treated no matter how their parents choose to treat them, right? Even if that means beating them to death, starving them, keeping them out of school, etc? Right? Kids are their parent's property, am I right?
The real issue here, as has been proven over and over again that when the economy goes down the tubes (thanks to Bush and your Republican Libertarian friends, its the worst economic situation since the great depression)the result is increased anxiety, frustation, worry, which leads to more drinking and abuse of kids and wives. We are asking the DCFS social workers to somehow be able to predict which of these parents will kill their kids, all while increasing the s.w's case loads and decreasing their department budget. We don't really know what we want form the social workers. We give them mixed messages: first we get mad at them for being "mean" and taking kids out of their homes when they are being mistreated, but then we get upset when we keep them in their homes and the kids wind up being killed. Maybe we should decide what it is we expect from these underpayed, overworked (huge caseloads) social workers, and once we figure it out, let them know. P.S. it might help if mental health issues. drug and alcohol issues adn child, elder abuse adn domestic violence were made a higher priority in our communities (in case you're not sure how that's demonstated, its by putting your money where your mouth is).

Ultimately the Board of Supervisors is to blame. They run all of the County departments on shoestring budgets, hire unqualified people all the while not paying the experienced people they do have and expect them to be able to provide all kinds of services like health care through the hospitals that have to take uninsured people, provide mental health services and even protect endangered children from their idiot parents that never should have gotten pregnant in the first place.

The order of blame should be:
1. The Board of Supervisors - just look how they messed up MLK hospital!
2. The families and communities that keep failing these kids
3. The Departments who can't and won't change to be more flexible and change the way they do business (communicate with the community, provide flexible work schedules and integrate with their fellow County departments to do more).

The County culture is stuck in the 1960's and refuses to change. Maybe that's because of an inept Board of Supervisors. Blame should be placed at the top and then trickle down. Don't expect these strapped County depts to be doing more when their hands are already tied.

Us social workers meet and talk to each other. As Mackie states.
We all work for The department of mental health. We are reimbursed for charging medical. Some places need less social workers and some need more- like DCFS. We never make more than 45-50 grand a year. You will never attract the best workers on that salary. Many of us would like to work out of state but made lives here. Most of us want our own practice. This, psychotherapy, is a dying busines.
I have been burnt out for 4 years, and my friends at DCFS- they can barely function. You have no idea how traumatizing it is to deal with this population five days a week.
Another friend is training ( with 15 social workers) to test children in school for mental illness ONLY. She wants out of the foster care system. She hates it.

How's that Structured Decision Making (SDM) working out?

OH ,by the way, I have my masters and am now licensed. I have no cell phone or cable. I pay 362 for student loans, my parents pay another 232 a month. My car costs about 300 a month and my rent is 900. I have to take classes to keep my license- thats about 1,000 a year, plus 200 for the license and insurance. Add gas, food, pge, 500 a month.
That leaves little savings or investment for retirement. I also pay 124 a month for my HMO. I was lucky to find a place to live in LA for 900 a month. Forget about it!

Mr. Wexler is wrong to suggest that The Times has suppressed any news of a "foster care panic." The reality is that the detention numbers have seen no sustained rise since the newspaper began its series of reporting on child fatalities in the system. Readers can access the detention figures and judge for themselves here: http://bit.ly/9bR2x9.

Garrett Therolf
Times Staff Writer

agree with Mackie, right on the money.

LATimes your headline is misleading. DCFS had nothing to do with these kid's deaths.

call out the criminals not the ones trying to improve the lives of others.

My husband and I would love to adopt but the system makes it so difficult. We have seen firsthand how children are taken from loving foster families and given back to an abusive, drug addicted biological parent.

We are one of the couples who has decided to move on to IVF.

The only defense a small child has against an abusive parent is our government. I can't imagine anyone advocating no government intervention as is being suggested by Windfall. What kind of society would we be if we stood by and allowed parents / caretakers to abuse their children as long as they don't kill them? The government isn't in the parenting business. They are in the PROTECTION business. Granted LA county seems to be doing a very poor job, or putting monetary savings ahead of children, however that does not mean that children should not be protected by "we the people" which takes the form of our government.

They are ALL murderers, rapisits and theives. they kidnapped my kid for a month for kicking out the marijuana supplier for the Chatsworth DCFS out of my house. They all need serious help as they can not tell truth from fiction. THEY KNOW as there is a record of phone calls made to my house (Dec. 24th 2008, most important one) from the DCFS cell phone issued to Ms. Denise Sherman, CSW II, months before her investigation. They are all trying to cover it up, all working together, Ms. Maitland, Mr. Flores and a host of others. If any reporters or law enforcement would like to get involved, well I can PROVE that Los Angeles County DCFS participates in the trafficking of children for criminals, please contact me.

I hope readers take you up on your suggestion, Garrett, and click on the link you provided in your comment. Because the data are almost identical to those in NCCPR’s own report on the foster care panic available here: http://bit.ly/a4IIj7 (See Page 10).

There always are fluctuations from month to month. That's why you determine a panic by comparing a month to the same month the previous year. There were spikes in every month from August through December 2009 compared to the same months in 2008. It stopped at the start of this year, then started up again in April and May.

And we both know, Garrett, that if you really wanted Times readers to “judge for themselves” you would have put these figures into the newspaper, with perspective from all sides, rather than only mentioning them now in a comment. But since you won’t do that, a full response to today’s story is on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog at http://www.nccprblog.org

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform


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