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Archive for August 2011

Nationwide protest of the foster care system makes its way to Johnson City

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Written by dawneworswick

August 13, 2011 at 12:10 am

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Flawed county system lets children die invisibly

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Miguel Padilla, mistreated and abandoned, killed himself at 17

Miguel Angel Padilla Sr., 45, spent much of his time in Mexico and left his son Miguel to be raised mainly by the boy’s elderly paternal great-grandmother, Maria Arriaga Hernandez. Eventually Miguel was sent to the LeRoy Haynes Center in La Verne. He escaped from there and killed himself. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times / September 23, 2009)

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.

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Written by dawneworswick

August 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

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A ‘grave letter of concern’ for Vyctorya Sandoval

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The co-founder of the foster family agency that cared for Vyctorya Sandoval wrote a letter expressing dismay at a court’s decision to return the toddler to her birth parents. Months later, the girl was dead.

Read the document here:



Written by dawneworswick

August 4, 2011 at 11:49 pm

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Child dies after being sent from foster care to her parents, renewing questions about L.A. County’s troubled children’s services agency

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Toddler Tori Sandoval was released from foster care to her biological parents and died months later, her body bruised. Police and county social workers say the parents are suspects.

By Garrett Therolf, Times Staff WriterJune 6, 2011

The two-page letter landed in the judge’s chambers at the Los Angeles County Children’s Court last fall, registering “grave concern” for the well-being of 17-month-old Vyctorya Sandoval.

Linda Kontis, co-founder of a foster family agency that contracted with the county to provide care to the girl, complained that the court system hadn’t properly considered the risks of returning the saucer-eyed toddler known as Tori to her long-troubled biological parents.

Months after the letter was written, Tori was dead. Healing bruises covered her body, according to a court document that children’s services officials filed. A rib was fractured. Blood tests suggested she died thirsty and hungry. For six hours, doctors tried to save her after she was rushed to an emergency room.

No charges have been filed, but police and county social workers say the parents are suspects in the investigation of Tori’s death on April 24. She had turned 2 the month before.

Her case has sent fresh shock waves through the county’s child protection bureaucracy, still struggling to implement reforms after more than 70 maltreatment deaths over the last three years of children who had been under the system’s supervision.

Investigators are awaiting a final autopsy report, and details of Tori’s life and health have not been disclosed. But Kontis’ letter has called into question whether the court system and the Department of Children and Family Services did all they could to safeguard the girl. Kontis declined to comment.

Kontis’ letter was one of two warnings officials received about Tori’s welfare in the months before she died, according to sources familiar with the case. A friend of Tori’s former foster parents, Jennifer Nichols, said the couple phoned in a report to the children services department after hearing from the girl’s relatives that Tori’s condition was worsening.

Document: Read Linda Kontis’ complete letter

Elise Esparza, a friend of Tori’s relatives, said she barely recognized the once-boisterous girl when she saw her the month before she died. “She was very pale looking and gaunt in the face. I said. ‘Something is wrong.'” After Tori’s death, Esparza said she was present when the girl’s mother described Tori pulling out her own hair and pinching herself.

Despite concerns among those who knew Tori, the court and the county left the girl with her parents, who lived in a Pomona apartment before their daughter died. Social worker visits were ordered, but interviews and records indicate that during the period she was with her parents, Tori’s weight dropped from the 50th percentile to below the fifth percentile for children her age.

Jackie Contreras, the county’s interim children’s services director, said one department worker has been placed on desk duty because of possible lapses in monitoring Tori. Confidentiality rules bar her from discussing the case, she said.

County officials have labored to correct recurring, systemic problems in child protective services. Last year, frustrated county supervisors complained of slow progress before the former children’s services director, Trish Ploehn, was ousted.

The county has touted its success in cutting foster care rolls by nearly two-thirds since 1997, to fewer than 20,000 children. Nearly nine of 10 children returned to their parents do not have a substantiated maltreatment incident in the first year. But critics point out that the rate of unsuccessful reunifications has nearly doubled as the county has allowed increasingly troubled families to reunify.

And three years ago a state Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care reported that court hearings for foster children average just 10 to 15 minutes, providing children no meaningful voice. The panel’s recommendations to reduce court caseloads have been stalled by budget problems.

Kontis wrote that hasty reunification efforts and a poorly conducted court hearing in September potentially put Tori at risk.

“I know that reunification is primary and always work toward that goal. However, there are cases where common sense must prevail and history is relevant,” said Kontis’ letter, which was written shortly after the September hearing. A copy was obtained by The Times.

Michael Nash, the presiding judge in Los Angeles Juvenile Court who supervises the commissioner who handled Tori’s case, said he received and answered Kontis’ letter. But the correspondence is confidential because of state rules, he said.

Tori was removed from her parents after her birth and joined eight older siblings in foster care, according to the letter sent by Kontis, who had access to extensive files on Tori. The family has had 11 referrals to child protective services for alleged domestic violence, child abuse and other issues, according to other sources with access to the family’s files.

Jennifer Dalhover, Tori’s 35-year-old mother, could not be reached for comment. An attorney representing Joseph Sandoval, 20, Tori’s father, who was arrested on a probation charge after the girl’s death, did not respond to messages


Written by dawneworswick

August 4, 2011 at 11:42 pm

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Deaths of 2 children are tied to lapses in L.A. County’s welfare system

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By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

July 18, 2011

A special counsel for the Board of Supervisors finds that social workers don’t have access to electronic files of clients during home inspections, and little progress has been made assigning experienced social workers to the most difficult jobs.

Deandre Green had been living with his mother and her boyfriend in Long Beach. He was found fatally beaten last year. His mother was convicted of felony child abuse, and her boyfriend was convicted of felony assault on a child causing death. (None, Green Family / July 31, 2009)


Persistent management lapses and a poor use of technology continue to hobble Los Angeles County’s child welfare system, and two high-profile child fatalities from last year have been newly tied to the breakdowns, according to records and interviews.

A special counsel acting for the Board of Supervisors has found that despite pledges to fix the problems, social workers still do not fully retrieve and evaluate case files electronically during home inspections. Not enough equipment is available, officials contend, and it often doesn’t work.

And county officials have made little progress assigning more experienced social workers to the most difficult jobs. Officials say civil service rules let veterans transfer to less stressful duties.

Both shortcomings played a role in the suicide last year of 11-year-old Jorge Tarin, according to the counsel’s special investigations unit, which was established to identify systemic breakdowns that may contribute to child fatalities.

For months, the Department of Children and Family Services has been under intense scrutiny because more than 70 children have died of maltreatment over the last three years after coming to the attention of social workers.

As a result of Jorge Tarin’s death, the special counsel recently issued a confidential update to supervisors. When child welfare officials reacted to the report in a 12-page memo, copies were widely circulated among county officials and obtained by The Times.

In that case, a social worker with just eight months’ experience responded to an emergency hotline call in June 2010 reporting that the youth had tearfully told counselors at his middle school that he wanted to kill himself, that life had become “unbearable” because he was ostracized and suffered beatings at home, according to records.

The county agency had previously removed the fifth-grader from his mother’s care and placed him in foster care because of mistreatment by her and a stepfather. But the child was later returned on the condition that the stepfather not live in the home because the man’s past domestic violence and drug abuse posed a “very high risk.”

The social worker went to Jorge’s Montebello house to investigate on June 8. But because she didn’t have one of the county’s tablet computers, she did not realize that the stepfather — who met her at the door — had been banned from the home. After questioning the child and his parents, the social worker could not confirm any new abuse and she left. Hours later, Jorge fatally hanged himself with a jump rope.

Since The Times reported the incident last July, two social workers have been disciplined for their involvement in the case. In its report, the special counsel said child welfare officials need to reevaluate the minimum requirements for the emergency response social workers who are assigned to investigate hotline calls.

In an interview this month, Jackie Contreras, interim director of the agency, said she was proud that the department had implemented additional training days and coaching opportunities for child abuse investigators. But she acknowledged that efforts to give the toughest jobs to workers with more experience have been stymied.

Usage of computer programs before deciding to remove a child, she said, remains an “expectation” and “not always a reality.”

The job of investigating abuse allegations is shunned by many social workers because of the difficulty and long hours. Once workers achieve the necessary level of experience, they often exercise their right under civil service rules to transfer to other duties. The burnout is especially acute in South Los Angeles, where cases are abundant and often complex, and remote areas of the Antelope Valley.

“We’re exploring the idea of a pay differential for these offices, to possibly lower caseloads there, to recruit people that already live in the communities and want to stay there,” Contreras said.

Beginning two years ago, supervisors issued promises to redeploy the child welfare staff and give them the technological tools they need to get a clearer view of complex cases. “We wouldn’t think of sending soldiers to war carrying jammed rifles,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said early last year.

Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky declined to be interviewed for this report.

The special counsel’s report on Jorge Tarin’s death also found that child welfare officials need to reexamine the use of a computer program called Structured Decision Making, which is designed to measure a child’s risk of maltreatment. Currently, the report said, the program is used “improperly or not at all.”

So that workers could use the software in the field, the department paid $5.9 million for about 2,400 tablet computers in 2007. But they purchased only 400 wireless cards that allow the devices to operate remotely. As a result, the technology largely went unused and the tablets remained on social workers’ desks.

Then-agency Director Trish Ploehn later explained that the devices had been purchased without first testing the system and that the department realized early in the rollout that the wireless connection was often slow or nonexistent. “We have very good social workers in our department who are not always very good information technology planners,” she said.

Contreras said the department is now considering buying new handheld devices. “Something that is a little more nimble,” she said. “Something that allows them to access information more efficiently.”

Meanwhile, social workers often rely instead on incomplete print-outs and quick scans of their office computer screens before leaving to investigate.

In the case of 2-year-old Deandre Green, a social worker repeatedly went to the wrong address for weeks because a print-out with the correct address in Long Beach was illegible, Contreras said.

The social worker never located Deandre before he was fatally beaten. His mother has since been convicted of felony child abuse, and her boyfriend was convicted of felony assault on a child causing death.

Two county social workers have been disciplined for their involvement in that case and two other temporary workers were dismissed, according to agency spokesman Nishith Bhatt.

Additional steps have also been implemented to raise flags when a child abuse referral includes an address that does not match the welfare rolls, Bhatt said.

Written by dawneworswick

August 4, 2011 at 11:38 pm

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Doctors’ group issues policy on sex abuse of children

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Associated PressJuly 19, 2011, 11:53 a.m.

The nation’s largest pediatricians’ group has issued its first policy on protecting children from sexual abuse by doctors, citing a recent Delaware case and urging medical facilities to screen employees for previous abuse.

Parents and patients also should be informed that they have a right to have a chaperone present during children’s exams, according to the policy from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is based in northwest suburban Elk Grove Village. Training programs should educate future doctors about appropriate boundaries, and health care institutions should report suspected abuse to authorities and not quietly pass the problem doctor along to another institution.


“Any sexual abuse of children by medical providers is a profound betrayal of their responsibility for patient well-being, trust, and medical ethics,” the policy states.

In June, former Delaware pediatrician Earl Bradley was convicted on 14 counts of first-degree rape and five counts each of second-degree assault and sexual exploitation of a child. Prosecutors said Bradley recorded homemade videos of sex crimes against more than 80 victims, most of them female toddlers.

That case has “reminded us that some among the pediatric profession may use their position of authority and trust to take advantage of their patients,” the policy states.

The policy is available online and is to appear in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Written by dawneworswick

August 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm

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L.A. County refuses to yield youth records

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The Board of Supervisors defies a subpoena for records involving the deaths of children being supervised by the troubled Department of Children and Family Services.
By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles TimesAugust 1, 2011
Despite a warning from California’s state auditorthat they were committing a crime, Los Angeles County supervisors defied a subpoena for records involving the deaths of children who had been under the supervision of the troubled Department of Children and Family Services.The inquiry was launched by the Legislature earlier this year after reports in The Times that more than 70 children had died since 2008 of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of county social workers. Many of those deaths, county officials have confirmed, involved serious case management errors.

The audit is intended to be the most comprehensive probe in years seeking to identify whether systemic flaws contributed to fatalities in Los Angeles and other counties across the state. Lawmakers said it probably would result in legal reforms.

A lawyer at a special firm hired by the county to handle the matter said officials had provided dozens of boxes of records and allowed auditors to interview social workers but would not turn over documents that they believe are shielded by attorney-client privilege.

“In addition to the county’s established right to protect its communications with its attorneys, the county seeks to preserve its ability to candidly evaluate its child protective services, and opportunities to improve those services, to further protect the children under the county’s care,” attorney Daniel P. Barer wrote in a response to questions from The Times.

The three other counties subject to the probe — Alameda, Fresno and Sacramento — have complied with similar subpoenas, but auditors said they were confronted by “only stalling tactics and unyielding refusal” in Los Angeles, according to records obtained by The Times.

As a result, state officials said they would be forced to issue an audit that addresses only the three other counties while they fight for access in Los Angeles.

“But make no mistake, we will not relent in accomplishing our mission of performing the audit that we were directed to perform by the Legislature,” wrote Sharon Reilly, chief legal counsel for state auditor Elaine Howle, noting that her office now intends to investigate Los Angeles even more deeply and broadly. In order to do so, the state withdrew the subpoena for Los Angeles County documents in early July and is crafting a new one.

Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno), the lawmaker who first proposed the audit, said the state would take Los Angeles County to court to enforce its subpoena, and he expressed regret that the county had forced officials into a confrontation.

“This is not just about holding the county folks accountable. It’s also the state,” Perea said. “What role and responsibility do we play? Are we giving the counties the resources they need? We are looking at everyone. No one is getting off the hook.”

The state and federal government fund 70% of the county’s foster care system, and both entities are mandated to independently review and improve its operations. The county has suggested that the state give it control over significant decisions in the audit process. Reilly said that would “eviscerate the bureau’s independence and potentially jeopardize billions of dollars in federal funding.”

The county already reviews many child fatality cases in search of case management flaws, but the state audit seeks to add an independent voice and take a broader look at the shared state and county responsibility to license and oversee foster parents.

Los Angeles County officials have chafed especially at state officials’ wishes to review reports written by the Children’s Special Investigations Unit, a small team of lawyers who review child fatality cases and report directly to the Board of Supervisors.

“The county asserts that these reports are subject to the attorney work product/attorney client privilege,” Reilly wrote. “My long-standing interpretation of the plain language of our governing statutes has been that my staff has the same … access possessed by any officer or employee of the auditee.”

The state is also seeking internal affairs documents and other reports by Department of Children and Family Services officials. Those records are not written by lawyers, yet the county is also asserting attorney-client privilege for them because they were often reviewed by county lawyers.

County attorneys have privately told supervisors that a judge is not likely to agree that the documents can be withheld, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations. A majority of the board nevertheless urged lawyers to fight the disclosure because of fears that the material could be used in lawsuits accusing the county of failing to provide proper child welfare services.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he had hoped the state and county could work out a compromise and had been disappointed by the interactions so far. “The attorney-client privilege is sacrosanct,” he said, “but not every confidential document the state auditors wanted was necessarily privileged.”

“Both sides took an all-or-nothing legal position. That was regrettable,” he said, “because the documents would show how extensively the county investigates to ascertain the circumstances surrounding a child’s death, and how to be more proactive in preventing such deaths in the future.”

Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But aides to the supervisors said the elected leaders worried that auditors might publish all or some of the otherwise confidential documents in their resulting public report.

In communications with county officials, Reilly said that would not be a problem.

“In the course of our ongoing discussions, we have advised repeatedly that, just as it is a misdemeanor for county employees to refuse the bureau access to confidential information, it is a misdemeanor for any bureau employee to release it,” Reilly said.

Reilly also accused the county of attempting to erode political support for the audit by contacting state lawmakers and mischaracterizing the auditor’s efforts to obtain information. “Such conduct obviously undermines any good-faith meet-and-confer process,” she said.

Los Angeles County has been repeatedly criticized in recent years for violating state law requiring it to release information regarding child fatality cases so that problems can be identified and remedied.

Under a law that went into effect in 2008, the department is required to release records to the press and other members of the public when a child dies after passing through the child welfare system. The county generally complied with the law initially, but after news reports about social worker error appeared in The Times, the release of records slowed.

In 2010, the county’s Office of Independent Review found that child welfare officials asked law enforcement agencies if they had objections to the release of documents without giving them the chance to first review the records. The effect has been blanket objections to disclosure that resulted in “a virtual paralysis of the statute’s intent,” according to a report by the office’s lead attorney, Michael Gennaco.

Written by dawneworswick

August 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized