By Supervisor Don Knabe
As a father and grandfather, learning of the death of any child in our foster care system is heart-wrenching and unacceptable. Over the last few weeks, the media has reported on an increase in fatalities in our County system through a misguided focus on some recently released data.
First and foremost, I want to assure the public that Los Angeles County is strongly committed to its responsibility to protect kids from abuse and neglect. Our Department of Children and Family Services is one of the largest in the nation. Our social workers investigate 170,000 allegations of child abuse each year and oversee the safety of 32,000 children on any given day. The scope and size of the challenges are significant.
To understand the factors that contributed to these tragedies, we need to look beyond the numbers and at the entire child welfare system. For example, have we considered the fact that the court system frequently orders placement of children back with families that may not be capable of caring for them, often against the recommendation of the Department? Social workers then have to manage tenuous family situations. Also, some of the fatalities reported took place long after social workers closed the case. How does this information inform their practices? Are we doing enough footwork on the front end of child abuse investigations? What additional tools and resources can we offer our social workers to best gauge abuse or neglect?
It is more important than ever to focus on solutions. The Department moved a large number of social workers to the front end of investigations to ensure the most thorough reviews of child abuse allegations in the nation. Every case, in fact every decision concerning a child, is reviewed at three levels of management. Social workers are being provided with updated technology to ensure accurate, timely casework and they are held strictly accountable for their actions. We are also reviewing each and every child fatality that has occurred since 2008, to see what further lessons can be learned and what additional measures can be put in place. I am confident that these strategies will go even further to protect children from harm.
Unfortunately, most of the reporting on this issue does not tell the full story. Take for example the news reports on the increase in number of deaths in foster care. State law requires us to release information on deaths that occurred that the County could clearly attribute to abuse or neglect. Most of the cases that fall under this distinction are homicides. The Board of Supervisors – over my objections – recently ordered a more expansive interpretation of the law to also include deaths that occurred that could not definitively be attributed to abuse or neglect. These include such tragic occurrences as suicides, accidental drownings and babies suffocated by sleeping parents, known as “co-sleeping.” This is essentially what caused the reported numbers to rise. I opposed the expanded interpretation of the law because I believe it has created an environment that fuels demagoguery and finger-pointing as opposed to a fair, open discourse on the highly complex, intensely emotional issues surrounding children in crisis.
I am absolutely committed to protecting the most vulnerable children in our community. In fact, it is my most important responsibility as a County Supervisor.
That is why I continue to fight for measures to keep our children safe throughout all of Los Angeles County.