Child Deaths Cannot Be Tolerated, Especially When They Can Be Prevented

An abused or neglected child dies in Los Angeles County almost once every three weeks.

There were 18 such deaths in 2009, my first year in office, and four more in the first three months of 2010. Our child death crisis is rooted in complex societal problems, from poverty and substance abuse to inadequate mental health care and generational patterns of abuse.

But it is also exacerbated by more simple failures of public policy. One of these is the lack of a shared database that would give social workers and others an early warning system to get children out of danger.

The children who have perished following abuse and neglect had each had some kind of contact with our Dept. of Children and Family Services. Some were in foster care, others died at their parents' homes.

In too many of these cases, a County case worker had visited the children's homes without full knowledge of potential dangers. Sometimes, they were unaware of mental health problems of parents; or they did not know an adult in the home had a criminal record.

Case workers were not informed of such factors, which could have warranted removing children from dangerous homes before deadly incidents occurred. In one recent case, investigators, following up on an abuse complaint, repeatedly visited the wrong address, over several days.

This is because the County is stuck with a system that combines aged technology with laws focused more on shielding government from liability than protecting children from abuse or neglect.

For nearly 20 years, County officials and the Board have said social workers, law enforcement, mental health and other officials need to be able to share information through a common network.

After years of sluggish progress, the Family and Children's Index (FCI) was created in 2005. This system is deeply flawed, however, and has not had an impact in preventing fatal abuse in Los Angeles County.

The statute authorizing the system, drafted by Los Angeles County, was written to accommodate various privacy and confidentiality laws. While these were important concerns, the resulting system is of little use. Rather than provide information about things such as prior abuse complaints, the FCI system merely tells a user some kind of record exists.

Instead of telling an investigator, for instance, if a parent has been convicted of assault and providing some information on the crime, FCI will indicate only that there is a file at the District Attorney or Sheriff, and will provide a contact name at the department.

Rather than provide immediate case information, it essentially directs an investigator to call someone to set up a meeting. This assumes the person can be reached or is still employed. This method is too cumbersome to be effective.

So dangerous situations have gone unrecognized, and in hundreds if not thousands of cases, investigations are delayed because departments are unable to make contact with each other -- even after the FCI system informs them there is information relevant to an abuse case.

Surely, we must protect privacy rights of individuals whose records may be accessed by a system. But we must balance those privacy protections against the "life or death" threats to children that we know are, tragically, too prevalent in Los Angeles County. When children are at substantial risk, we must not cling to a dysfunctional defense of confidentiality.

We can instead act nimbly to give investigators the warning signs they need to spot hazards, while maintaining protections that will also ensure access to records is not abused. As a society we must treat the threat to children as seriously as we do the threat of terrorism. We can find ways to act both aggressively and fairly to protect the children in our custody.

I am working with allies in the community and the state legislature to find a way past the legal, technical and political barriers that keep us from building the kind of early warning system we need to protect our children.

I recognize technology is not a panacea. Other departmental reforms are important as well. Along with proper equipment, social workers also need to have manageable case loads. Training needs to be enhanced, especially for emergency response workers and their supervisors.

Technology may not be a cure, but it is part of the treatment. In Los Angeles County, we must move swiftly and forcefully to end child fatalities, starting with the problems we can fix.

Every three weeks we are reminded why we can't wait.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has represented the Second District since December, 2008.