Supervisors demand abuse panel
By: Charles F. Bostwick
June 13, 2013
Saying that recurring problems identified in a 2012 investigation appear to be factors in the alleged mishandling of the case of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy whose mother and her boyfriend are accused of torturing and murdering him, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich is calling for an independent review of the obstacles to reforming Los Angeles County’s child-protection efforts.
With Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, Antonovich will propose at next Tuesday’s board meeting the creation of a “blue ribbon” commission to review previously delayed or failed efforts to implement reforms and to provide recommendations for a feasible action plan to implement reforms expeditiously in the Department of Children and Family Services.
“There is widespread agreement among the board, DCFS leadership, social workers and citizen activists that the child welfare system and the manner of investigating critical cases of child abuse is dysfunctional,” Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich wrote. “The current system does not serve the best interests of the child, the family of the community at large. Further, there is widespread agreement that child safety investigations can be improved by better training, management, support for and accountability of social workers as well as improved communications between schools, police agencies, probation staff, DCFS and other key stakeholders in the county’s child safety network.”
Already, an internal county review is underway into the Department of Children and Family Services’ handling of earlier reports of abuse of Gabriel Fernandez, who died May 24, two days after authorities found him with a broken skull, burns and other injuries in his family’s Palmdale apartment. Four social workers at the department’s Palmdale office have been relieved of their responsibilities for monitoring children and assigned to desk duties during the investigation.
In addition, a state legislative committee will audit the department, as well as the child-services department in Sacramento County, where officials were accused of mishandling another child-welfare case.
Gabriel Fernandez’s grandparents and teacher all repeatedly reported what they believed to be abuse, but the boy remained living with his mother and her boyfriend.
Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 29, Gabriel’s mother, and Isauro Aguirre, 32, her boyfriend, are charged with one count each of murder with the special circumstance of torture. Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty for either, officials said.
Besides Gabriel’s case, Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich cited a 2009 case in which a 6-year-old Los Angeles boy was found dead in his home despite repeated reports of abuse in the preceding months. They also cited a 2010 death of a girl who had been left in her mother’s care despite a determination it was a “high” risk.
Since 2008, the Board of Supervisors has made some three dozen votes involving child safety, Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich said. The Children’s Special Investigation Unit, established in 2009, has prescribed numerous policies for improving the handling of child abuse incidents, as well as recommendations on how to consistently serve children for whom the county is responsible, they said.
A 2012 report by the Children’s Special Investigation Unit, looking into 13 deaths, cited poor investigations, followed by poor decision-making, failing communications, and lax supervision and management as “recurrent systemic issues,” the supervisors said.
“The recurring problems identified by the CSIU appear to have been factors in the alleged mishandling of Gabriel F.’s case,” Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich wrote.
They noted that the board in 2010 called for improved collection of data on child fatalities and ordered changes to enable social workers to access data on children in danger. The board in 2011 voted to directly oversee the Department of Children and Family Services, rather than do so through the county’s CEO.
The commission sought by Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich would have 10 members, two appointed by each supervisor by July 1. Their recommendations would be due by Dec 31.
Meanwhile, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris wants Philip Browning, the director of the Department of Children and Family Services, to speak to the Lancaster City Council at its June 25 meeting to explain what reforms are being made.
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