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Infant’s death rekindles scrutiny of L.A. County child services agency

 

Authorities deemed Diamond Hillman’s mother fit to care for her, even though the woman’s two other children had been removed from her home. Four months later, Diamond was dead.

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-child-death30-2009dec30,0,7229655.story

Five months before Diamond Hillman was born last July, her two half siblings were removed from their mother’s home.

Social workers found that she had spanked her 6-year-old daughter with a belt, scrubbed her face so hard it left welts and sent her to school in diapers.

Despite that finding, and a resulting court order that the 28-year-old mother have only monitored visits with the two older children, child welfare authorities deemed her fit to care for Diamond.

The child lived just four months. She died Nov. 22, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, a convicted batterer with whom the mother had left the baby, according to court records and a confidential child-fatality report obtained by The Times.

Her death comes amid growing public scrutiny of suspected abuse and neglect fatalities among children whose families at some point were under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

There were 14 such deaths in 2008 and at least that many this year, though some remain under investigation, according to department officials and records recently made public under California law.

Diamond’s death is being investigated by the department, Santa Monica police and the L.A. County coroner’s office.

Many of those deaths occurred after children left the department’s watch — to return to their families after a stint in foster care or to enter the criminal justice system, records show.

But Diamond’s case calls the department’s vigilance into greater question, because she was still under its direct supervision when she was killed.

Donald Renald Hillman Jr., 33, a resident of Santa Monica and her mother’s estranged husband, has pleaded not guilty to murder and child abuse.

He is being held in lieu of $1-million bail.

The mother was not identified in the child-fatality report and has not been charged. She did not respond to a phone message left with a man at her last known address.

Shortly after Diamond’s birth, her mother told Hillman that he was not the girl’s father, “but he accepted Diamond as his child,” the report states. Although separated from Hillman, the mother left Diamond with him Oct. 4 while she met with a friend.

Hillman, who is 6 foot 1 and weighs 245 pounds, allegedly shook the infant so hard that day that she suffered retinal hemorrhaging and a traumatic brain injury.

When he brought her to a hospital emergency room in full cardiac arrest and not breathing, he told doctors the injuries were accidental.

“According to Diamond’s stepfather, Diamond was asleep in her bassinet when her two-year-old half-sibling ran into the room and somehow fell over the bassinet,” the report states.

The attending physician said that explanation didn’t jibe with the baby’s injuries, which “appeared to be the result of being shaken,” the report notes.

Doctors twice resuscitated the infant and placed her on a ventilator, Santa Monica police said. She spent the next six weeks on life support, which was removed Nov. 22, police said.

An autopsy supported the shaken-baby diagnosis and Hillman was arrested Dec. 7 after he attended Diamond’s funeral, police said.

The cause of death has been deferred pending further investigation by the coroner’s office.

“As a result of the circumstances surrounding Diamond’s death, the Department will perform a comprehensive review and analysis of our prior involvement with Diamond and her family,” the report said in part.

Social workers are trained to give extra consideration to the cases of children who are age 2 and younger, because they are considered the most vulnerable and the least likely to be observed by people outside the home.

Trish Ploehn, who heads the child welfare agency, would not say if social workers had been disciplined for their handling of Diamond’s case, but noted that such action is taken when warranted. Social worker error was a factor in 10 of the 14 deaths in 2008 among children with prior involvement with her department, Ploehn said earlier this year.

She declined to comment on circumstances surrounding Diamond’s death, which she called “a tragedy for our entire county.”

“The safety and the well-being of all children in Los Angeles County remains our highest priority,” Ploehn said in a statement.

One of the key issues under review, according to the internal report, is whether the department acted appropriately in keeping Diamond with her mother, who was still subject to monitored visitation with the older children, then 2 and 6.

Also under scrutiny is a decision by the department last February to place the 2-year-old with Hillman despite his criminal history, the report said. Hillman is the child’s biological father.

A search of Los Angeles County Superior Court records for Hillman turned up convictions for burglary, drug abuse and battery dating to 1998.

In 2005, he was charged with felony domestic violence but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of battery, court records show.

A marijuana possession charge was dismissed.

The court file did not identify the battery victim, although the original felony charge was based on the alleged infliction of injury upon a “spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or the mother or father of his or her child.”

Hillman was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years’ probation, and ordered to undergo domestic violence counseling, including anger management.

In 2006, he was kicked out of a “batterers treatment program” after missing four of six meetings, court records show.

The county report states that Diamond’s family had been the subject of six prior abuse and neglect complaints since 2004, when the oldest child, then 18 months old, was alleged to be hungry and living with her mother in a motel with no cooking facilities.

When a social worker could not find them, that allegation was deemed inconclusive .

Subsequent allegations of general neglect, sexual abuse and physical abuse in 2006, 2007 and 2008 involving the oldest child were all deemed inconclusive or unfounded, the report states.

In late January 2009, social workers substantiated allegations that the girl, then 6, had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother.

Besides striking her with a belt, the woman also had interfered with the girl’s relationship with her father, who was not Hillman, and had created “a detrimental environment” that caused her to act out aggressively.

The girl and her younger sibling were then taken from their mother and placed with their biological fathers.

When Diamond was born, the woman was “actively participating in court-ordered services and had nearly completed the required case plan activities,” the report noted.

So she was permitted to sign onto a “family maintenance plan” that allowed her to keep her new daughter at home, the report said.

“That agreement remained in place at the time that Diamond suffered the injuries that resulted in her death,” the report said.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Times staff writer Garrett Therolf and researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

Man gets 25 years to life for murder of Dae’von Bailey, 6

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-bailey16-2009dec16,0,741489.story

By Hector Becerra

Marcas Catrell Fisher, 36, pleaded guilty to beating his ex-girlfriend’s son in South L.A. as his 5-year-old daughter watched from the corner of a room, unable to scream.

One month after pleading guilty, a South Los Angeles man was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years to life in prison for beating his ex-girlfriend’s 6-year-old son to death.

Compton Superior Court Judge John Cheroske sentenced Marcas Catrell Fisher, 36, to the maximum term for first-degree murder.

Fisher killed Dae’von Bailey on July 23 in South Los Angeles as the boy’s 5-year-old half sister — who was Fisher’s daughter — watched from the corner of a room, unable to scream. The girl would later tell social workers that she had seen her brother tied up in the hallway, crying, as her father beat him.

Later, she said, Fisher put Dae’von in the shower and told him to “wake up” before dragging him to the bedroom. Fisher eventually fled, leaving his daughter behind with her dead brother.

For almost a month, he eluded a police dragnet before being tracked to an apartment in North Las Vegas.

A convicted rapist, Fisher had agreed to care for Dae’von and his daughter after their mother, Tylette Davis, put five of her six children in other people’s care. The boy and his siblings had been the subject of 10 child abuse or neglect investigations since 1999 by the time he came under Fisher’s care.

In the last three months before his death, Dae’von twice told authorities that he had been physically abused by Fisher, but both times he was left with the man who eventually killed him.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives said that the boy’s body bore bruises in different stages of healing, indicating that he had been abused for an extended period of time.

On Tuesday, a bespectacled Fisher apologized from behind a pane of glass at the Compton courthouse for killing the boy.

Before he was sentenced, Majella Maas, the boy’s kindergarten teacher at Lakewood’s Riley Elementary School, told the court that Dae’von’s death left not only his family grief-stricken. Later, Maas said the boy was the most affection-hungry child she had encountered in 28 years of teaching, always asking for hugs.

After the sentencing, she went to his grave site in a Compton cemetery. It bears no marker, she said, but a cemetery worker knew where it was and led her there.

He had made a makeshift marker for Dae’von’s grave, Maas said.

“He said, ‘Oh, the baby?’ I’ll show you where he is,’ ” she said. “He knew his name instantly.”

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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.

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-child-deaths5-2009nov05,0,6734205.story

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.”

kim.christensen@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Why do the children keep dying?

 

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-et-onthemedia16-2009oct16,0,4314089,full.column

 

James Rainey

 

Gail Helms told me how she happened on the pictures and the headline on the front page of Sunday’s Times: “Flawed County System Lets Children Die Invisibly.”

The tears came to her eyes. She put the paper aside for a while.

Reading about two teenagers dying in foster care would be painful for anyone, but doubly so for Helms. The stories served up another reminder of the anger and despair she felt 14 years ago, when her grandson Lance was beaten to death after a judge returned the boy to his violent, drug-plagued father.

“These cases are so difficult,” Helms, 66, said quietly, on the phone from her home in Hemet. “You can’t help but think: Has anything changed? Has anything changed?”

It’s trite and inadequate to say all of us have failed, but I’m going to say it anyway because I think it’s true.

The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services needs to do more to keep better tabs on children. The county supervisors who oversee the agency need to do a lot of things better — starting with breaking the years-long logjam that has kept county departments from sharing information about children at risk. And the media, including The Times, need to more consistently pursue an issue that won’t go away any time soon.

I’ve had a particular interest in the issue since I met Gail Helms in the dark days after 2 1/2 -year-old Lance’s death in North Hollywood.

Little I’ve written in nearly 30 years of newspapering has generated as much response as that 1995 story. A picture of the adorable, sandy-haired toddler appeared on Page 1, along with the description of how he’d been hit so hard his internal organs burst.

The phone calls and mail arrived in waves. Eventually, the state Legislature passed reforms.

It all seemed so important then. It all seems so inadequate now.

My article touched only one of the system’s horrific failures, but barely hinted at how kids fall into danger and, more important, what helps keep them safe.

I like to think I got to some of those deeper issues as I wrote about foster care over the next couple of years. But the problems seemed so big — an army of incompetent parents overwhelming a small rank of protectors — it was hard not to get depressed.

Every few years, The Times would go full throttle after another child death or mount a series of stories, but then move on to other things.

“On the general topic of staying on a subject year after year, I think that’s fair criticism on a lot of subjects,” said David Lauter, the Times’ assistant managing editor who oversees local coverage. “News organizations have a tendency to focus attention on a subject for a while, then move on to the next subject. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does work against consistency.”

I could see how the paper would focus its attention elsewhere. There are so many other subjects, people and places in the county that cry out for coverage. Even one activist who has dedicated much of her life to child welfare issues told me confidentially: “You get to a point that your eyes glaze over and you move on.”

Still, if abused and neglected children don’t fall under the old journalism admonition — comfort the afflicted — then who does?

Since taking over local coverage more than a year ago, Lauter said, he has asked his reporters for more coverage. And my colleague Garrett Therolf has joined the battle. He’s detailed children’s deaths, ridden along with a social worker, raised the question of how a county supervisor could be “shocked” at the number of fatalities, when the lawmakers receive regular reports of same and noted how Los Angeles’ many bureaucracies have failed, repeatedly, to figure out a way to share information about endangered kids.

Therolf and veteran investigative reporter Kim Christensen wrote the Sunday pieces about Miguel Padilla and Lazhanae Harris that had Gail Helms near tears.

The stories raised questions about county oversight but also suggested a long-running dilemma of a system “in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can’t or won’t care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better — and are sometimes worse.”

What hasn’t changed since I left the child welfare beat?

* The need to provide as many services as possible — drug rehab, parenting classes, day care and the like — to troubled families to help them keep children at home. It’s tempting to want to wish a pox on deadbeat parents, but evidence shows it’s cheaper, and works better, to give them a hand. The alternative often is the long-term costs and abysmal outcomes that come with foster homes and, often, the probation camps and prisons that follow.

Trish Ploehn, director of the family services department, tells me an arrangement with federal officials has allowed more money to be spent on such services. The 14 kids in the system who died of abuse or neglect last year was higher than any of us should accept. But when the county was pulling many more children from homes a decade ago, foster care deaths peaked at 20 in one year.

* Promises that the county social workers will get more information — from probation, mental health, sheriff’s deputies and others — to give them more clues when children might be in danger. The supervisors are stumbling along, more than a decade later, on the most recent fix. It’s not a panacea, but more information can only make for better decisions.

* Fights over public records. Our reporters still struggle to learn more about what happened to the kids who died. Despite passage last year of yet another “transparency” law, reports on child deaths often have many key facts blacked out. Ostensibly, the redactions protect siblings, but they seem more likely to protect adults who need to be held accountable.

Finally, I think we could use more notice — like the article Therolf wrote in March about a “ride-along” with one caseworker — about the huge challenges social workers face every day.

As with many other subjects, the media focus more on foster care problems than solutions. News outlets need to do both when it comes to the most daunting work I can imagine.

It’s hard to comprehend the many losses Gail Helms has suffered. After Lance died, her son, David, went to prison for delivering the fatal blow. Daughter Ayn died of lupus, after a long fight to keep custody of Lance and for foster care reforms.

Now 66 and retired from a career in insurance, Gail Helms remains resilient. She laughs about her fading memory and still brings herself to read about foster care horrors, wondering when the system will get better.

In the meantime, Helms said, people can feel better if they help just one child. They can sign on with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a group of volunteers who help judges make the right decisions for foster children. Or they can give money to the Alliance for Children’s Rights, another nonprofit that intervenes when foster kids aren’t getting what they need.

“Even now, after all these years, it’s like most people don’t know what to do,” Helms said. “I think people need something they can do.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

Flawed county system lets children die invisibly

 

Miguel Padilla, mistreated and abandoned, killed himself at 17

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-miguel11-2009oct11,0,4795548.story?page=1

By Kim Christensen and Garrett Therolf

 

October 11, 2009

Miguel Padilla ran away from a licensed group home in April 2008, but he didn’t go far.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the 17-year-old amputee made his way to a stand of trees near the main driveway. Using his one arm, he climbed into the branches, tied a makeshift noose to a limb and hanged himself.

Nine days passed before a staffer found his body at the sprawling LeRoy Haynes Center in LaVerne, coroner’s records show — and then only by chance.

“To our knowledge there was no search by LeRoy’s or any other authority,” said Dave Rentz, the boy’s minister.

Miguel Padilla died much as he had lived: alone and out of sight, his suicide the final step in a failed journey through Los Angeles County’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

At least 268 children who had passed through the child welfare system died from January 2008 through early August 2009, according to internal county records obtained by The Times. They show that 213 were by unnatural or undetermined causes, including 76 homicides, 35 accidents and 16 suicides.

Eighteen of the fatalities were deemed the direct result of abuse or neglect by a caregiver, subjecting them to public disclosure under a recent state law aimed at prevention.

But Miguel and many others perished all but invisibly, their deaths attracting little or no public scrutiny.

Through interviews and previously confidential records, The Times examined his death and that of Lazhanae Harris, a 13-year-old girl slain in March. Both underscore systemic failings, particularly the risks of losing track of abused kids as they commit crimes and “cross over” to the justice system, or as they move through multiple state-licensed homes.

Together, they also illustrate the range of flaws in a system in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can’t or won’t care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better — and are sometimes worse.

Trish Ploehn, director of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, said such deaths, though horrific, do not represent the vast majority of the thousands of cases her agency handles each year.

“The tragic lives and deaths of Miguel and Lazhanae only begin to scratch the surface of the extremely difficult, complex and complicated family circumstances that DCFS social workers are faced with every day,” Ploehn said.

“It is very rare for a child to die of abuse or neglect while in the care or under the supervision of DCFS,” she added, “and we consistently work to perfect our performance to help keep children safe, even after they leave our protection and supervision.”

Ploehn said efforts are under way to improve collaboration between juvenile justice and child welfare officials and to intervene swiftly in the lives of troubled families.

By almost any measure, Miguel’s life would fit the definition of mistreatment: He was abandoned by his mother, largely neglected by his father and left to struggle with untreated medical problems and depression most of his life.

By the time he died, however, he’d broken the law and moved from the care of the county’s children’s services department to that of its Probation Department, which oversees 20,000 juvenile offenders.

Up to half have a history with the child welfare agency, Probation Department Director Robert Taylor said. Ploehn said the proportion was far lower.

In Miguel’s case, interviews and records show, the county failed him time and again — not finding him a stable home, not addressing emotional problems that contributed to his delinquency, not even looking for him when he disappeared.

When the County Children’s Commission, a panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors, took the extraordinary step of reviewing Miguel’s death and four others among abused children on probation last year, it found “serious and consistent deficiencies” in their care. Four were suicides and one died of disease.

“Had the system met its responsibilities, the committee believes that some of these suicidal youth might have made healthier choices and the fifth might have had his health complaints acted upon more timely,” the commission said in a confidential draft report prepared for county supervisors and obtained by The Times.

The draft was never issued in final form.

Abandoned at 10

Miguel Angel Padilla Jr. was born in February 1991 at a Sylmar hospital and later moved with his family to Mexico, where he had two accidents that would shape his life.

When he was about 9, he touched a metal rod to a power line while playing on an apartment building rooftop. He was seriously burned and lost his right arm below the elbow. He later lost the sight in his left eye when a firecracker shattered a pop bottle in his face.

At age 10, he lost his mother, who took his three siblings to Texas and started a new life without him, according to interviews and child welfare records obtained through a court petition.

“Minor’s mother left him when he was little and has never made any attempt to visit or call,” a social worker’s report noted in August 2004.

Shortly after Miguel’s mother left, the boy and his father, Miguel Padilla Sr., moved back to Southern California, to the Santa Clarita Valley community of Newhall.

The father worked odd jobs and spent much of his time in Mexico. The boy was raised mainly by his elderly paternal great-grandmother, Maria Arriaga Hernandez, who by all accounts, including her own, was ill-equipped to care for him.

“She had no real control,” said Rentz, a minister who was close to the family, “but she provided the best she could.”

The family first came to the attention of the children’s services department in April 2003, when social workers substantiated allegations that Miguel’s father had neglected the 12-year-old’s medical, dental and emotional needs.

Their report cited the father’s “lack of cooperation,” poverty and limited job skills. Records also noted Miguel’s suicidal tendencies, which his father attributed to ridicule from other children about his disability.

“Miguel sometimes seems to have a hard time processing information,” a follow-up report stated, adding that he used poor judgment and seemed depressed.

Records show that Arriaga, then in her late 80s, went to Mexico with his father for long stretches, leaving the boy with friends or relatives.

Although social workers visited regularly and drafted a mandatory action plan, even its clearest goals — to get Miguel to school regularly and to get him a prosthetic arm — were never achieved, documents show.

Arriaga told social workers repeatedly that she had trouble comprehending what they said, even though they spoke Spanish. On the signature line of the parenting plan, she scratched an X.

Even so, there is no evidence that the children’s services department tried to remove the boy and find him a more stable environment.

When a reporter visited Arriaga recently at her apartment in Newhall, she referred questions to Miguel Sr., 45.

In an interview, he acknowledged that he lives much of the time in Mexico, where he has two other children. He was unable to drive Miguel to his appointments, he said, because he’d lost his license and was jailed for driving under the influence.

But he denied that he neglected his son or that the boy was emotionally troubled. He suspects foul play in the death, not suicide.

“My son didn’t have no problems,” Padilla said. “He was just a fighter, that’s all, and when I wasn’t around for a while he got away from his grandma. She’s old and she couldn’t handle him too good.”

Child welfare records paint a bleaker portrait, saying Miguel sometimes refused to eat and locked himself in the bathroom for hours, crying. At school, he’d skip recess.

“He said at school he stays in the classroom because he can’t make friends, except for the second or third graders because they are nicer to him,” a social worker wrote in June 2004, when he was 13.

That spring, Miguel was measured for a prosthetic arm he desperately wanted. Months later, he had to be re-measured; he’d missed so many appointments his size had changed.

Meanwhile, he wore a down jacket to hide his disability, said Denise Tomey, executive director of the Carousel Ranch in Santa Clarita, where he spent six months in a riding program for disabled kids.

“He had no self esteem,” Tomey said in an interview. “He walked with his head down and he wore that heavy jacket, even if it was 105 degrees out. He thought people judged him because he was missing an arm.”

Tomey and Rentz both remembered the boy showing a softer side, such as when he helped other kids at the ranch learn to ride and groom horses.

“I have a heart,” he told a probation officer in March 2006. “I care about people. When I have opportunity to do something really bad I think about it.”

But he also had a penchant for trouble: He faced charges for allegedly threatening and assaulting a teacher. He also was accused of burglarizing a home, vandalizing cars and tagging a fence with gang graffiti.

Cumulatively the charges were enough to land Miguel in the care of the Probation Department and in a succession of juvenile hall and group home placements.

Along the way, probation reports show, he joined a Newhall gang; picked up the nicknames “Little Shadow” and “Lefty”; and told authorities he used marijuana and alcohol. He liked school but was “not that smart,” he said, and during one stretch of heavy absenteeism he pulled straight Fs.

By May 2006, his great-grandmother was overwhelmed. “I cannot take him,” she told probation officials. “He is not well. He asks me to make him well. . . . He yells out loud to me, ‘Cure me.’ “

Miguel spent the last two years of his life in multiple placements, running away at least once before going to the Haynes Center. One probation report called him “a continual behavior problem.”

While Miguel was in juvenile detention, psychiatrist Saul Niedorf concluded that the boy’s impulse control had been impaired by brain damage from the electrocution. Until then, apparently, no one had considered that possibility.

Niedorf recommended a “structured, therapeutic setting” for Miguel, and he was sent to the Haynes Center, which is licensed to house 72 boys, in January 2008.

The day after his last court hearing that month, his father and great-grandmother left for Mexico, asking a social worker to visit him in their absence. In a March 2008 letter seeking official permission to stop by, the social worker said Miguel had had no weekend visitors for two months.

“I have been informed that the minor has been struggling lately and I believe he may benefit from the interaction,” she wrote.

A month later he hanged himself.

Taylor, the county’s probation chief, defended his department’s handling of the case but acknowledged that the death highlighted the need to better understand why so many children who pass through the child welfare system end up in the care of his agency.

In hindsight, Taylor said, it might have been better if Miguel at a much earlier age had been placed with someone other than his elderly great-grandmother.

“Finding someone who would have been a better caregiver might have resulted in a different outcome,” he said. “You just don’t know.”

As for youngsters who go AWOL from Probation, Taylor said, about 300 were missing at the time Miguel disappeared and he doesn’t have the staff to track them down.

Dan Maydeck, president and chief executive of the LeRoy Haynes Center, declined to comment, citing legal and contractual restrictions.

Miguel’s death signifies a much broader problem, said Miriam Long, a Los Angeles deputy mayor who worked on children’s issues as an aide to former county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke.

“A lot of these kids have mental health problems that should have been addressed much earlier in their lives,” she said. “Without sounding too much like a bleeding heart liberal, because I’m not one, they could have been redeemed.”

But Long said they can be difficult, and many adults would rather not deal with them.

“The teachers were happy when they were finally washed out and gone,” Long said. “DCFS was happy when they were gone to Probation, and Probation was glad they were gone and went AWOL.”

Before her retirement last year, Burke got board approval to have Probation search for AWOL children and report any deaths confidentially to supervisors.

Seeing no action, her successor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, got the board last month to reiterate Burke’s order.

“They don’t get it,” he said of the department.

Tomey, the ranch director, knows only that children like Miguel can be helped.

“He really was one of those kids that, if he’d been in the right situation, he would have ended up being a totally different person,” she said.

“His life could have turned out OK, or not. Tragically, it did not.”

kim.christensen@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times database editor Doug Smith contributed to this report.

Experts worry child deaths will lead to `panic’

 

http://www.dailybreeze.com/news/ci_13273648

By Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Posted: 09/04/2009 08:59:47 PM PDT

FOSTER CARE: Some fear agencies may rashly take youngsters from parents in wake of county fatalities.

By Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Following a series of high-profile deaths of children in Los Angeles County, child welfare experts are warning that foster care agencies could overreact to the renewed scrutiny by tearing hundreds of children needlessly from their families.

Several experts said that when the agencies faced public criticism in the past they have at times acted too quickly to take children from their families and place them in foster care.

They warn this reaction will further overload the system, making it even harder for social workers to help children in real danger.

“Children’s lives – literally – may depend on stopping such a foster care panic,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

In the past year, well-publicized deaths of a child by the hands of a parent or caregiver in Los Angeles have included Dae’von Bailey, 6; Jasmine Granados, 2; and Lars Sanchez, 4. Bailey and Sanchez’s alleged mistreatment had been reported to DCFS before their deaths.

Bailey’s stepfather, Marcas Fisher, allegedly beat him to death in late July in South Los Angeles.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina last month said the death of a child from starvation, the decapitation of another child and the beating death of another child convinced her that “something did not happen – something fell through the cracks.”

But county officials disputed the idea of a “foster care panic,” saying they have seen no evidence of it.

Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn noted the number of detention petitions filed in Juvenile Court has dropped from 941 in May to 896 in July. That’s down from 972 in May to 934 in July of last year.

“Why is (a foster care panic) not happening in Los Angeles?” Ploehn asked. “The answer is our county’s child welfare system, which has been significantly reformed over the past several years, is built on the belief that child safety is paramount and that children should only be removed from their families when necessary due to their safety.”

But Wexler said social workers – fearful they could be disciplined or fired for leaving or returning a child to a parent who later kills them – know they will not face repercussions for needlessly removing children from their families and placing them in foster homes.

“After seeing scores of their colleagues transferred to desk jobs, seeing one county supervisor falsely blaming fatalities on efforts to keep families together, and seeing another declare that heads will roll, every caseworker is running scared.”

Kenneth Krekorian, executive director of Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, said he’s noticed an uptick in the number of detention petitions filed in Juvenile Court to separate children from their families since the child deaths received widespread publicity.

“I don’t know whether we have enough information yet to see if the increase is due to the deaths of these children,” Krekorian said. “But I would agree with (Wexler). I’ve been doing this for many years and it does seem when there is something in the newspaper about a death of a child, or a notorious case, that there is an increase in filings afterwards.”

County officials said eight social workers are currently assigned to desk duty as investigators probe the deaths and any mistakes made in the cases of the children who died over the past year.

Studies show a third of children are abused in foster care and when they leave the system many wind up homeless, on welfare, incarcerated or dead. A recent county grand jury report noted nearly 70 percent of people in California prisons and jails are “products of the foster care system.”

The concerns about a foster care panic come as DCFS has made what its former director, David Sanders, called “revolutionary” reforms, reducing the number of children in foster homes on any given day from 30,000 in 2003 to 15,553 last month.

The Board of Supervisors has kept vacant for nearly three years the position of an independent entity charged with investigating child deaths and recommending what actions should be taken to prevent future tragedies.

Despite the drop in the number of children living in foster homes, Wexler said DCFS takes children away from homes at a much higher rate than most other large metropolitan areas. After falling for several years, the number of children entering the county’s child protective system rose 24 percent from 8,299 in 2003 to 10,903 in 2007 before dropping to 10,083 last year, according to the Center for Social Services Research at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Board of Supervisors has expressed concerns that DCFS has become too focused on reducing the number of children in foster care. Since the recession began, concerns have mounted that the downturn could result in increased stress in families and more violence in the home.

Although Molina and Yaroslavsky did not return calls for comment, Karen Strickland, executive director of Find The Children, a Los Angeles-based missing children’s organization, said she shares their concerns and has seen numerous cases where social workers have left children in the care of parents who are potentially dangerous to their children.

“I’m concerned about the assessment skills of these workers and the supervision these workers are getting,” Strickland said.

Despite the recent tragedies, Ploehn noted the number of deaths of children from abuse and neglect “known to the system” has dropped from a high of 20 in 1999 to a record low of 11 in 2006. The number increased to 12 in 2007 and 14 last year.

Ploehn said more than 50,000 children were living in foster homes in 1999, the same year the county experienced the highest number of deaths due to abuse and neglect of children known to DCFS.

As DCFS has provided more services to help families stay intact, Ploehn said “children are indeed safer, not only from harm and possible death, but also safer from the negative effects of being separated from their family.”

To prevent a “foster-care panic” in which social service agencies needlessly remove children from homes, foster care expert Richard Wexler offers a few recommendations to the Board of Supervisors:

Expand investigation of high- profile death cases to include equal attention to wrongful removal cases.

Seek changes in state law to provide for “total transparency,” including opening court hearings in child welfare cases, and most case records, to the public and media.

Establish clear public benchmarks for progress, post the data prominently on the DCFS Web site and commit to measuring DCFS by those outcomes, “not by whatever happens to be on the front page that morning.”

Suspend the use of “structured decision-making” in which computers decide when to remove children based on questionnaires filled out by social workers.

“They need to make clear to front-line caseworkers that wrongfully removing a child from a safe home is every bit as dangerous as leaving a child in a dangerous home,” said Wexler.

- Troy Anderson

 

Expert tells how he would prevent ‘panic’ in foster-care system

 

http://www.dailynews.com/news/ci_13274570

By Troy Anderson, Staff Writer

Updated: 09/04/2009 09:28:34 PM PDT

To prevent a “foster-care panic” in which social service agencies needlessly remove children from homes, foster care expert Richard Wexler offers a few recommendations for the Board of Supervisors:

Expand any investigation of high-profile death cases to include equal attention to cases of wrongful removal.

 

Seek changes in state law to provide for “total transparency,” including opening court hearings in child welfare cases, and most case records, to the public and press.

Establish clear public benchmarks for progress, post the data prominently on the DCFS Web site and commit to measuring DCFS by those outcomes, “not by whatever happens to be on the front page that morning.”

 

Suspend the use of “structured decision-making” in which computers decide when to remove children based on questionnaires filled out by social workers.

“They need to make clear to front-line caseworkers that wrongfully removing a child from a safe home is every bit as dangerous as leaving a child in a dangerous home,” said Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said he’s confident an action the board recently took calling on better information-sharing among various government agencies will help prevent tragedies like the recent ones.

“We need to use these tragedies to improve and upgrade DCFS investigations,” Antonovich said. “That’s why we are talking about using more modern technology.”

L.A. County to probe child welfare system

 

The Board of Supervisors orders the investigation to see what flaws in the system might have played a role in the deaths of three children.

 

(Yea, well…they keep saying that, but I haven’t seen any results yet!)

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-child-death19-2009aug19,0,470276.story

By Garrett Therolf

August 19, 2009

Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to launch an investigation into potential flaws in the child welfare system that might have played a role in the deaths of three children over the last month.

Child welfare authorities had at one point investigated the care of the three children who died.

Statistics show that in the last three years, a dozen children or more have died annually as a result of abuse or neglect despite the fact that their cases had come to the attention of social workers.

The investigation would be the first intensive look at such cases since 2006.

“The county of L.A. must do everything it can to determine what happened in these cases, and what lessons can be learned from these tragic events,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in his motion for the inquiry.

Under the terms of the motion, the county’s auditor-controller will conduct an inquiry in coordination with the Department of Children and Family Services and the Los Angeles County district attorney into the deaths of Dae’von Bailey, Lars Sanchez and Jasmine Granados.

The probe will include contacts with the family services department, all other county departments, law enforcement and private agencies.

Dae’von was beaten to death, allegedly by his mother’s former boyfriend; Lars was decapitated by his mentally ill mother; and Jasmine died under suspicious circumstances while in foster care.

In an interview, Ridley-Thomas said that any information not protected by confidentiality laws would be released.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Boy’s death shows weaknesses of L.A. County’s child welfare system

 

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-child-death18-2009aug18,0,7683835.story

 

Records show that Yolanda Tijerina exhibited signs of mental illness months before she decapitated her son Lars Sanchez, 4. But the risk was not deemed sufficient to remove him from her care.

 

By Garrett Therolf

August 18, 2009

Nine months before the mother of a 4-year-old decapitated him with a Ginsu knife, the principal of a Highland Park preschool phoned Los Angeles County’s child abuse hotline to report that the woman was screaming and shouting outside the building.

Yolanda Tijerina’s tirade, which seemed directed at no one in particular, drew a crowd of neighbors and staffers at Meridian Children’s Center.

“I think you killed my son!” shouted Tijerina, whose 4-year-old boy, Lars Sanchez, attended the school. “I think you killed my son. I have panic attacks.”

Principal Elizabeth Blackwell’s call led to an investigation by mental health and child welfare officials, according to county documents recently obtained by The Times. The boy’s grandmother told officials that the mother had “episodes,” and his adult sister told them she believed the boy was in danger.

The documents, released by the county Department of Children and Family Services under a 2008 disclosure law, show in chilling detail how even dramatic evidence of a mother’s illness was not considered sufficient grounds for removing a child from her care.

The department closed the case in a matter of days, saying that allegations of emotional abuse against Lars could not be substantiated. The home was considered “stabilized.”

On July 18, shortly after daybreak, Lars’ grandmother found him dead in the bedroom he shared with his mother. Tijerina was on the floor next to the bed, her left wrist slashed to the bone. A knife lay next to her.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, publicly condemned the county’s handling of the case as “a big mistake.” As is routine, the social workers involved were assigned to desk duty pending a review.

The brutal death of Lars Sanchez underscored a significant weakness of the child welfare system: gauging the risks of a caregiver’s mental illness.

Mental illness in itself does not disqualify one from raising a child.

Child welfare officials must consider whether the person is under effective treatment, whether the child’s care is overseen by other stable adults, and whether the illness results in abuse or neglect of the child. These are determinations that can be a challenge even for psychiatric experts.

“Social workers are not necessarily trained to assess a parent’s mental health,” said Charles Sophy, medical director with the Department of Children and Family Services.

Nor are they necessarily privy to key information about the parent or other caregiver. For instance, they can’t access mental health treatment records without the patient’s permission. Without that, the decision may be largely based on a one-on-one interview.

“Mental illness is easy to hide sometimes,” Sophy said. “You can put on a smiling face when I knock on your door, and I will never know that you tried to kill yourself last week.”

Nevertheless, social workers confront and decide the issue frequently.

Almost a fifth of the 4,468 children removed from their homes by the family services agency last year were removed primarily because of a parent’s mental illness.

Lars’ death has already prompted some changes.

The department has sped up its plans for an internal hotline allowing social workers to consult with Sophy or his medical staff when mental illness is at issue, Sophy said.

But social workers in Lars’ case were not acting entirely on their own, interviews suggest. According to two sources with knowledge of the case, the social workers called in evaluators from the county Department of Mental Health to do an assessment of the mother, and the findings persuaded them that she was not a threat.

That exam failed to diagnose the gravity of Tijerina’s illness and did not reveal the fact that a private hospital had once placed her under an involuntary psychiatric hold, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because mental health records are confidential.

Such a hold allows a qualified peace officer or clinician to confine a person if the mental disorder makes her a danger to herself or others, or if it interferes with the person’s ability to meet her own basic needs.

“One of the things that concerns me,” Molina said, “is that no one checks to see if someone has children when they place a person” under a such a hold.

“They need to be checking that and alerting” the children’s services agency.

In the end, the social workers found that Tijerina often spoke nonsensically. They found that her “emotional stability, developmental status or cognitive deficiency impairs her current ability to supervise, protect or care for the child.”

But they said this risk could be addressed through three months of informal monitoring by a neighborhood resource center and observation by family members and neighbors, according to county documents.

(Neighbors said the boy’s grandmother was seen frequently around the house, but it was unclear whether she lived there.)

Also counting in favor of the mother was the fact that she had been cooperative during the child-abuse investigation.

Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn said confidentiality laws prohibited her from speaking about the case.

Dr. Roderick Shaner, medical director of the Mental Health department, said he also was constrained by confidentiality restrictions.

But he noted that records of an involuntary psychiatric hold at a private hospital would not necessarily come to light without the patient’s explicit consent to search for the record.

Shaner said such mental health evaluations were “not geared to make determinations or predictions of what might happen.”

Children and Family Services social workers “should be aware of the limited sources of information we have,” Shaner said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.

 

L.A. Mom who Beheaded Son Showed Red Flags

 

Woman who Decapitated 4-year-old with Kitchen Knife Showed Signs of Mental Illness 9 Months Before Attack

 

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/08/18/national/main5249916.shtml

A Los Angeles woman who decapitated her 4-year-old with a kitchen knife showed signs of mental illness nine months before the attack, yet Los Angeles County child welfare officials decided she wasn’t a serious threat to the boy.

Lars Sanchez was found dead on July 18 in a bedroom he shared with his mother. She was on the floor, her left wrist slashed to the bone.

Nine months earlier, Yolanda Tijerina was investigated after she began screaming and shouting, “I think you killed my son!” – apparently to no one in particular – outside the boy’s Highland Park preschool, the Los Angeles Times said.

The principal at Meridian Children’s Center reported her to the county’s child abuse hotline.

Social workers, who investigated for several days, learned that Tijerina often spoke nonsensically, and the boy’s adult sister told officials that she believed her brother was in danger.

The investigation concluded that the mother’s “emotional stability, developmental status or cognitive deficiency impairs her current ability to supervise, protect or care for the child.”

However, officials concluded that the boy could remain at the home if there were three months of informal monitoring by family members, neighbors and a neighborhood resource center, the Times said, citing documents released by the county Department of Children and Family Services.

Emotional abuse allegations involving the boy could not be substantiated, the department concluded.

The employees involved in the case have been assigned to desk duty pending a review.

Last month, county supervisors voted to review the deaths of about a dozen children who had been the subject of abuse complaints to the county. The vote followed the July beating death of 6-year-old Dae’von Bailey in South Los Angeles. His stepfather is suspected of killing him.

The boy reportedly had been the subject of about a dozen calls to child welfare authorities about possible abuse.

Last year, social workers removed 4,468 children from Los Angeles County homes, and parental mental illness was the main reason in nearly a fifth of those cases.

However, mental illness alone doesn’t disqualify a parent from caring for a child. Social workers must also determine if the child is being abused or neglected, the parent is getting treatment, and whether there are other adults at home to care for the child.

The decision can be difficult.

“Social workers are not necessarily trained to assess a parent’s mental health,” said Charles Sophy, medical director with the Department of Children and Family Services.

“Mental illness is easy to hide sometimes,” Sophy said. “You can put on a smiling face when I knock on your door, and I will never know that you tried to kill yourself last week.”

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