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Byline: Susan Goldsmith Daily News Staff Writer

Twelve times last year, children were fatally abused by their parents or caretakers after warnings to Los Angeles County officials that the children were in danger, according to a confidential county report.

Eleven of the children were beaten or shaken to death. One starved.

Eight of the 12 children were under active supervision by Los Angeles County social workers, and in three cases social workers or their supervisors were fired or disciplined for failing to protect the children, the report states.

``These kids are being put in harm's way, and the system is failing at every level,'' said Gail Helms, whose 2-year-old grandson Lance was one of the 12 victims.

``It's just shocking and unacceptable,'' said Helms, whose grandson was beaten to death last year despite a social worker's repeated warnings to a juvenile dependency court that the boy was in danger.

The girlfriend of the boy's father was charged with beating Lance to death. She pleaded no contest to child abuse charges and is serving a 10-year prison term.

In response to the Helms case - and concern that it might indicate serious problems in the safety net protecting abused children - the Board of Supervisors asked for a detailed report on children who died while under county supervision.

A court order was required for the information to be released by the County Department of Children and Family Services, and it was granted after supervisors argued that since the department is under the county's purview, the board is entitled to review case files.

The report was provided under seal to county supervisors Feb. 29. A copy was obtained this week by the Daily News.

In some cases outlined in the report, youngsters died from abuse even though county employees followed proper procedures, while in other cases, children were fatally abused after county officials neglected their duties to protect them.

In one case, a social worker was assigned to monitor a family in which there had been a history of abuse against a young child - including seizures and a broken leg when he was 1 month old, the report said.

When the social worker went on leave for six months, a supervisor neglected to reassign the case, the report said. During those six months, the child died from ``head trauma and shaken baby syndrome,'' the report said. The father has been charged with murder.

An investigation concluded that the supervisor ``falsified records and averted controls designed to ensure that the case was reassigned.'' The supervisor was later fired.

In another case, a 19-month-old girl who had been born addicted to cocaine and amphetamines died from physical abuse after the case worker assigned to monitor her did not visit the home for two months preceding her death.

After an investigation, the county took steps to fire the social worker, a supervisor and a manager in the department, according to the report. The social worker resigned; the other two face termination.

Peter Digre, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, reported to the Board of Supervisors last week that the department's resources have been strained by an increase of 36 percent in the past two months in the number of reported child abuse cases.

The pressure has been felt most by the department's 2,300 social workers, Digre said. About 500 of those workers carry caseloads at least 25 percent higher than the standard for the department, he said.

Digre did not return calls for comment in response to obtaining the confidential report.

The court system's workload also has ballooned, so judges typically can spend no more than about 15 minutes evaluating each case, Juvenile Court manager John Walker said last week.

A spokesman for the union representing county social workers said it was unfair to single out social workers for criticism or discipline when the system itself is dangerously overloaded.

``For management to suggest a social worker's error led to the death of a child is outrageous,'' said David Estrada, a senior field representative with the Service Employees International Union. ``These workers are trying the best they can, and they are truly overworked.''

Schuyler Sprowles, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services, said social workers typically have caseloads of between 40 and 50 children each.

There are an estimated 65,000 children within the child protective services system, officials said.

``The department is doing an excellent job of protecting kids,'' Sprowles said.

``Can we do more? Yes,'' he said, adding that the department aggressively investigates what went wrong when a child under county supervision dies.

``Every homicide in L.A. County where there is active participation by our department is investigated backwards and forwards by our department,'' Sprowles said.

Deanne Tilton, executive director of the county's Inter-Agency Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect, said social workers should not be singled out as the cause of child abuse.

``Social workers don't kill kids. Parents and caretakers do, and we need to remember that,'' Tilton said.

Tilton added that child abuse deaths overall are actually down sharply - noting that 61 children died at the hands of parents or caretakers in Los Angeles County in 1991, compared to 39 in 1995.

``Caseloads have gone up,'' Tilton said. ``Deaths have not.''

Tilton added: ``We will not sleep until we are assured we have done everything humanly possible to stop the unnecessary deaths of little children.''

In order to ensure early intervention in child abuse cases, the county recently announced the nation's first computerized system to track child abuse cases.

The High Risk Family and Children's Index is a centralized database that stores information about families and children identified by public agencies as possibly at risk of abuse and neglect.

The system has information readily available for public agencies involved with at-risk children. In the past, compiling such data took months, according to Sheriff Sherman Block.

The county also has a Child Death Review Team that exhaustively reviews each child abuse homicide and issues an annual report on its findings.

How the children died An internal investigation by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services found 12 cases in which children died last year while under the department's supervision or after the department was warned the children were in danger.

The confidential report, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily News, found social workers were fired or disciplined in three cases.

Based on the county's report, here are the circumstances under which these 12 children died:

20-month-old girl: Born March 29, 1994. Died Dec. 6, 1995.

The child and three siblings bounced between foster care and the custody of the paternal great-grandmother for several months. The department found the mother was involved in a San Bernardino County case in which a 10-month-old died under suspicious circumstances. Nevertheless, the department recommended on July 14, 1995, that the children be returned to their parents.

Five months later, authorities responded to a call on the Child Abuse Hotline that a toddler had been badly beaten. She died that day from head trauma and shaken baby syndrome.

The mother and father are awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.

The social worker elected to resign in lieu of being fired after it was found the worker had failed to see the girl in the two months preceding her death and had failed to ``assess pertinent facts regarding reunification.''

2-year-old boy: Born Oct. 17, 1992. Died July 20, 1995.

The toddler died of head injuries while in the custody of a relative, where he had been placed by Children's Services.

The department got involved after the Child Abuse Hotline received a call saying the child had been abandoned with an unrelated caretaker. County social workers placed the boy and his younger sister with a cousin. The child was later reported drowned in a bathtub, but the coroner ruled the cause of death was from a blow to the head.

The relative was arrested and was awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

A department investigation found deficiencies in policy and procedure by the social worker and supervisors, who failed to follow through on child safety procedures. Three employees were disciplined.

18-month-old boy: Born Feb. 3, 1994. Died Aug. 24, 1995.

The boy was admitted to the hospital when he was 1 month old and suffering from seizures and a broken leg. The father was charged with abuse but not convicted after the mother refused to testify. The child was released from the hospital to his parents against the department's recommendation.

The mother told the coroner that the child was experiencing breathing problems the night of Aug. 23, 1995, and was placed in a sleeping bag on the floor. The mother said she found him dead the next morning.

The father has been indicted on first-degree murder charges.

A department investigation found the social worker assigned to the case had gone on leave and her supervisor didn't reassign the case, so that county social workers had not seen the child or assessed the situation for six months prior to the boy's death. The investigation also found the supervisor had falsified records and averted controls designed to ensure that the case was reassigned. The supervisor was fired.

3-month-old boy: Born July 10, 1995. Died Oct. 8, 1995.

The child was exposed to cocaine before birth and died in his mother's custody despite repeated visits from a social worker.

The baby and two siblings were allowed to stay with the mother after she agreed to remain drug free and to participate in drug counseling. The social worker made 10 home calls between July 18 and Sept. 28, 1995.

On Oct. 6, 1995, the baby was admitted to the hospital and was declared dead two days later from cerebral trauma.

The mother was arrested and is in jail awaiting trail.

The social worker was found in compliance with state regulations and departmental policies.

6-week-old boy: Born July 20, 1995. Died Aug. 29, 1995.

The child died at the hospital, severely underweight after being in the care of his 14-year-old mother, who lived with her parents.

The baby was seen by a pediatrician four days before his death. The public health nurse who was following the case was unable to contact the doctor on the date that the child was seen in order to determine follow-up requirements.

The coroner ruled that the child died from maternal neglect.

The mother was not arrested or charged pending an investigation.

The social worker was found in compliance with state regulations and department policies.

13-month-old girl: Born Aug. 20, 1994. Died Oct. 9, 1995.

Exposed to methamphetamines before birth, the girl was taken from her parents and placed with an aunt, in whose custody she died.

The coroner ruled that the baby died from shaken baby syndrome. The aunt said the baby fainted while being given a shower, and she shook the girl in an attempt to revive her.

The aunt was arrested and charged with murder.

The social worker was found in compliance with state laws and department policies.

3-year-old girl: Born July 26, 1991. Died July 12, 1995.

Removed from her parents because of filthy and unsafe conditions, the child was placed in the care of an adult half sister - where she died from being struck on her head and abdomen.

The half sister told police the girl had been kidnapped but several days later recanted and said she had fallen in the bathtub. The half sister guided police to where the child's body had been discarded in a black trash bag in a remote area. She later confessed to striking the child ``out of frustration.''

The adult half sister was convicted of murder and is awaiting sentencing.

The social worker saw the child in the month before her death and was found in compliance with state regulations and department policies.

11-year-old boy: Born May 30, 1983. Died April 1, 1995.

The handicapped child was shot in the head by his father, who then turned the gun on himself.

The department had investigated past allegations of physical and sexual abuse but found no evidence of abuse. A social worker attempted to contact the father three times on March 30, 1995, after the child told school officials his neck hurt because his father had thrown him on the bed.

The social worker was unable to make face-to-face contact with the father. The next day the father, apparently distraught over unemployment and allegations that he could not care for the child, shot the boy and killed himself.

The social worker was found in compliance with state regulations and department policy.


1-year-old girl: Born Dec. 27, 1994. Died December 1995.

The department investigated allegations of abuse and closed the case because the allegations could not be substantiated. The child was later found dead in a field.

The case was referred to the department by Department of Public Social Services officials who claimed the mother was emotionally disturbed. Despite several attempts, social workers could not contact the parents to investigate the charges, and the case was closed.

The child was found dead in a field near Interstate 215 in Riverside County. The mother is awaiting trial on murder charges.

The department has not fully investigated this case.

8-day-old boy: Born Sept. 12, 1995. Died Sept. 20, 1995.

Children Services had taken a 1-month-old baby from the 14-year-old mother in 1993. But a grandmother told county officials she was unaware of the girl's subsequent pregnancy and the birth of a second child.

The mother took the child's body to the hospital, saying she had found him with no signs of life just two hours after seeing him alive. An autopsy revealed a bruise and blood clot on the child's head that was one to two days old.

The mother has disappeared, and no arrests have been made.

The social worker was found to have acted in compliance with state laws and department regulations.

16-month-old boy: Born Sept. 7, 1993. Died Jan. 2, 1995.

The mother was jailed, leaving the boy in the custody of a boyfriend. Police did not alert the department.

The department had investigated the mother in 1991 after allegations of medical and general neglect of two older children before the deceased boy was born. The case was closed when the allegations were unsubstantiated.

On Jan. 2, 1995, the boy was transported to the hospital and declared dead from blunt force trauma to the abdomen.

No arrests have been made.

2-year-old boy: Born Sept. 11, 1992. Died April 6, 1995.

The child, identified publicly last year as Lance Helms, died while in the custody of his father, where he had been placed by a judge over the objections of the department, which said the father had a history of violence and drug abuse.

On April 6, 1995, the 2-year-old was transported to the hospital, where he died of blunt force trauma to the abdomen.

The father's girlfriend is serving a 10-year sentence in connection with the child's death. The father was not charged.

The social worker was found to have complied with state regulations and departmental policies.



BOX: How the children died (see text)

?3Compiled by Daily New s Staff Writers Susan Goldsmith and Tony Knight.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Mar 29, 1996

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