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In wake of fifth-grader's suicide, L.A. County supervisors may ask for outside audit of child services

July 28, 2010 |  7:30 am

Los Angeles County supervisors took steps Tuesday to hire an independent auditing firm to conduct a sweeping review of the troubled Department of Children and Family Services.

The proposed review, set for a vote at next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, follows a report Sunday in The Times about the suicide of Montebello fifth-grader Jorge Tarin. The 11-year-old hanged himself in his mother's room June 8,  just hours after a social worker was sent to the home to determine whether Jorge's threats of suicide at school that day were serious. The social worker left without him.

“Recent tragedies are the failure of a coordinated protocol of county departments who come into contact with abused and neglected children and their families,”  said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who introduced the proposal with Supervisor Don Knabe.

Jorge's death marks the most recent example of communication breakdowns in the department tied to child fatalities. The department has only 400 wireless cards for some 2,400 tablet computers purchased in 2007 for use in the field. The social worker sent to Jorge's home had no way to connect remotely to department case files that might have filled in crucial details.

Under the proposed review, auditors would evaluate the department’s management structure, looking specifically at breakdowns in accountability. In addition, the proposal calls for an evaluation of the effectiveness of Director Trish Ploehn’s reforms in the child abuse investigation process. 

In addition, the audit would look at ways to better share information among agencies such as the Health Services, Public Health, Mental Health and Public Social Services. 

The current system, known as the Family and Children Index, has repeatedly proved inadequate, with much of the information unavailable, requiring social workers in the field to call agencies for additional information. Officials have been pursuing state legislation to loosen legal restrictions on the flow of information.

In Jorge's case, the social worker checked the index, got an indication of a problem and then did not immediately hear back from the agency or agencies that made that report, according to records reviewed by The Times.

“There is no speedy and accurate method for a child abuse investigator to access key criminal, mental health, school and medical information,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Many in the county system seem either unable or unwilling to accept that the system is broken. Social workers and others who would rely on the system, however, have long said it is useless."

Ridley-Thomas said that despite a "real-world rejection" of the Family and Children Index, "we continue to put forth Band-Aid proposals in hopes these incremental changes will produce something useful."

He expressed support for an outside audit, indicating that the motion will likely have the support of a board majority next week.

-- Garrett Therolf at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration

Read Therolf's full report on Jorge Tarin's case: Boy's suicide reveals continued problems with L.A. County social services

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