California falls short in examining deaths of children
A law designed to allow public scrutiny of fatal abuse and neglect is unevenly enforced and leaves many unaccounted for.
By Kim Christensen and Garrett Therolf
November 4, 2009 | 6:45 p.m.
A new law aimed at exposing child deaths to public scrutiny has given Californians their most complete view yet of the toll of abuse and neglect but falls short of legislators’ intent and leaves many fatalities uncounted, according to interviews and The Times’ review of previously confidential records.
Known as Senate Bill 39, the 2008 law was largely intended to highlight systemic flaws in hopes of preventing other children’s deaths. More than a year after it took effect, however, it has shed limited light on how — and how many — children die of abuse and neglect.
“We do not know how many children have died in California,” said William L. Grimm, senior attorney for the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, one of SB 39’s backers. “We did not know five years ago, and we don’t know today.”
The problem, in part, is that counties interpret the law’s requirements differently. Their views vary on what constitutes abuse or neglect and on what information is subject to disclosure. And in at least one county, Los Angeles, deaths appear to have been mistakenly overlooked.
The Times early this year filed public records requests with all 58 counties, and they in turn reported a total of 109 child deaths in 2008 caused by abuse or neglect. Some pending cases were later substantiated, bringing the statewide total to 114, according to records obtained from the state Department of Social Services.
Los Angeles County, by far the largest with more than 10 million residents, reported 32 such deaths, but some other large counties noted far fewer. For instance, Alameda County, the state’s seventh-largest with a population of 1.5 million, reported one — an 18-month-old Hayward boy fatally scalded in a bathtub; his mother’s boyfriend has been charged.
Twenty-eight other counties — nearly half — reported no deaths from abuse or neglect.
One of the law’s sponsors, Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), said it has brought greater transparency to the child-welfare system, but she lamented that there still is a “lack of uniformity” in how the counties have responded. “Counties need to be given a clear and concise directive,” she said. “Until we can say we have done everything possible to save every child from injury or tragic death, we have more work to do.”
Beaten, shaken, shot or simply allowed to starve, scores of California children die each year from abuse and neglect. Until last year, virtually all information about these deaths was kept from public view, ostensibly to protect the privacy of children and their families.
But that secrecy also shielded child welfare officials and their sometimes lethal mistakes from public scrutiny, children’s advocates argued. At their urging, state lawmakers mandated the release of previously sealed records, including those detailing dead children’s prior contacts with child welfare agencies.
The results have shed some light on the problem — showing, for instance, that 14 deaths occurred last year among children whose families had been at one time investigated by Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services.
It is impossible to know how many deaths were not counted that should have been. But in its review The Times found some clear instances of underreporting.
The Los Angeles County children’s services department, for example, said in August that it had recorded four child deaths this year that resulted from abuse or neglect. Internal records obtained by The Times showed there actually had been nine.
Among those the county had not disclosed as abuse and neglect were the deaths of a 10-year-old boy killed in a June traffic accident when he and two siblings were thrown from a van that had no rear seats and that of a 3-month old boy who died in a motel room where his parents left him alone for 12 hours.
When a reporter raised the discrepancy with the department, Director Trish Ploehn acknowledged the additional deaths and pledged to institute “internal controls” to avoid such oversights.
Grimm, of the Oakland-based youth law center, which has collected death records from the 15 largest counties, said the totals fall short of what he would have expected.
“Our own experience making requests in counties across the state so far suggests that we are not getting a complete picture of the children who have died as the result of abuse or neglect,” Grimm said.
Gail Steele, an Alameda County supervisor who has pushed for full disclosure of child deaths, said she thinks many abuse and neglect fatalities are not reported. Her office tracks all children’s deaths in that county and reviews coroner’s files to make its own assessments.
“My thing is you can’t figure out how to prevent deaths or fix things if you don’t know what happened,” she said.
Often the problem is varying interpretations of what constitutes abuse and neglect.
Grimm cited the example of a small child who is killed in an auto accident because the intoxicated parent who was driving had not placed him in a car seat. Although that death would fit most people’s definition of neglect, he said, some child welfare officials might deem it an accident, especially if the coroner did.
“The official cause might be accidental, but if you look more closely at it you say, ‘My god, that’s definitely neglect’ and it should be labeled as a neglect death,” Grimm said.
Bethany Christman, who oversees children’s services in Kern County, said such latitude in interpreting the law could help explain why her county, with a population of about 820,000, reported nine deaths last year while much larger counties reported far fewer.
“If law enforcement or the coroner don’t say anything [about abuse or neglect], some counties won’t either,” she said.
In passing the law in 2007, legislators said they wanted to bring to light not only child deaths but also the details of the young victims’ experiences with child welfare officials.
“Without accurate and complete information about the circumstances leading to the child’s death, public debate is stymied and the reforms, if adopted at all, may do little to prevent further tragedies,” wrote the bill’s sponsors.
Even when a death is disclosed as required, California law allows most records to remain closed if prosecutors or families’ attorneys object to their release. Those that are made public often are so heavily redacted of names and other identifying information that it’s impossible to decipher what happened — or even who died.
Grimm and others complained in a March 13 letter to the California Department of Social Services that recently issued regulations made it hard for counties to determine what should be released or redacted. They also objected to the department’s decision to exclude deaths caused by people who were not in a custodial role, including boyfriends, extended family members and family friends.
“The regulations are a tortured reading to say the least,” said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., who also signed the letter. “The law is pretty explicit that all abuse or neglect deaths must be released.”
Officials with the California Department of Social Services said in an interview that they were revising the guidelines and would consider the letter writers’ criticisms.
Jan Viss, who heads the Child and Family Services Division in Stanislaus County, which reported that five children died from abuse or neglect last year, said the law is plain enough already.
“We are very clear about what we are supposed to report and we take that responsibility very seriously,” she said, adding that her county thoroughly reviewed child deaths even before the law took effect.
“Even one death is a tragedy,” Viss said. “All we can do is strive to do better for these kids in the future.”