Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rising child deaths in LA County

L.A. official targets foster care system
Troy Anderson. News. Pasadena Star. Pasadena, Calif.:Aug 29, 2006.

Disturbed to learn that Los Angeles County social workers returned dozens of children to parents or caretakers who later killed them, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo asked the Grand Jury on Monday to investigate and identify areas for reform.

"We have a child welfare system that is broken," Delgadillo said. "And I'm not going to sit on the sidelines while kids are being harmed by the very system designed to protect them.

"We think there are as many, maybe more, than 75 children whose lives have been lost" in the last five years, he said.

Those claims involve alleged incidents where social workers either returned foster children to abusive parents or caretakers or failed to remove the youngsters from abusive homes.

Maureen Siegel, senior assistant city attorney, said they arrived at the figure by extrapolating out data prior to 2001, which showed an average of about 15 children had been slain by parents and caregivers after they were returned home from foster care or left in their homes by social workers.

Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect data suggests the number of deaths may have decreased in recent years. ICAN reports reveal the number of deaths rose from 13 in 1996 to 15 in 1997 and then peaked at 20 in both 1998 and 1999 before falling to 15 in 2000 and 12 in 2001.

The number of deaths rose to 18 in 2003 and fell to 15 in 2004. Data for 2002, 2005 and this year was not available.

Department of Children and Family Services spokeswoman Louise Grasmehr said DCFS has made significant improvements in recent years in ensuring the safety of children despite reunifying thousands of foster children with their biological families.

And she pointed out that the federal government's recent approval of a funding waiver will help the department further improve child safety. The waiver allows the department to use $350 million of its $1.4billion budget on services to help families overcome their problems before it's necessary to place their children in foster homes.

"We take every death of a child extremely seriously and the department takes every death of a child in our system to heart," Grasmehr said. "We routinely look at practice issues in child fatalities."

Since 2003, DCFS statistics show number of children in foster homes has dropped by 26percent, the percentage of children abused in foster care dropped 30 percent and the percentage of children re-abused in the community dropped by 14 percent.

"Certainly, any death is too many," said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights. "If DCFS is not making proper assessments, that's something that needs to be looked into. I just don't have any good indicators that says DCFS is not now or in the last year or two not making improvements in their ability to assess risk."

In a letter to the grand jury, Delgadillo noted there is currently no independent system of review in place to hold accountable the agencies responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect, as well as removing them from dangerous homes.

Delgadillo said he decided to ask for the investigation after seeing a number of cases come through his office in which children had been killed following DCFS involvement.

troy.anderson@dailynews.com
(213) 974-8985

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