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

October 18, 2010 | 12:33 pm

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.