On Wednesday, prominent Los Angeles County officials will revisit a trying time in the county’s child protection history.
In May of 2013, the violent death of an 8-year-old Antelope Valley boy rocked the county. The first story that appeared in The Los Angeles Times opened with gruesome details that are still as shocking today as when they were first written.
“When paramedics arrived at his Palmdale home last week, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s skull was cracked, three ribs were broken and his skin was bruised and burned,” wrote then Times reporter Garrett Therolf. “He had BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. Two teeth were knocked out of his mouth.”
The ensuing media frenzy and the local child protection agency’s failure to intervene after numerous reports of the boy enduring sinister abuse at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend enraged the public and the Board of Supervisors. Within months, the five-member board had empaneled a commission to evaluate how so many signs could have been missed and come up with recommendations to make sure it didn’t happen again.
By April of 2014, the “Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection” had released a lengthy slate of recommendations meant to reorient the county’s public agencies to prevent child abuse and tragic cases like Gabriel’s, and also better serve the children who entered the child welfare system. High among them was ensuring that the county’s 46 law enforcement agencies and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) did a much better job of coordinating their efforts.
Five years later, the only remaining supervisor who was in office during the commission’s work, Mark Ridley-Thomas, has convened a closed-door discussion this Wednesday with former commissioners and current heads of county agencies to review the recommendations and progress made.
In terms of child safety, there are clear signs that the county has strengthened the net it uses to fish out and avert the worst kinds of child maltreatment. But despite a recent dip in child homicides with circumstances similar to Gabriel’s, they still occur with alarming regularity.
In 2013 Gabriel was one of 17 children killed by abuse or neglect by a parent or caregiver who had been referred to the child protection hotline, according to DCFS. From 2014 through 2017, around 18 children would die each year in similar circumstances, with the number dropping to 10 in 2018 and no such reported deaths as of February 28 of this year.
A through line in many of these cases is spotty coordination between law enforcement and DCFS in the child abuse investigation process. In 2014, the commission zeroed in on the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System (eSCARS), a program run by the District Attorney’s office wherein police officers, sheriff’s deputies and child protection workers are meant to cross-report child maltreatment allegations in a shared database to better inform investigations.
At the time, the program had only one full-time staff member and was woefully underfunded. Data compiled by the tiny unit in 2014 found that the county’s 46 law enforcement agencies were all over the map in terms of how they used eSCARS, and how they responded to child abuse reports that popped up in the computer-based interface. The L.A.’s Sheriff’s Department sent a car out and investigated 97 percent of all child abuse reports it received; the Los Angeles Police Department investigated 74 percent of the time, while Long Beach’s Police Department responded to only 54 percent of reports.
Mike Gargiulo, a deputy district attorney who oversaw the one-person unit back then, told The Chronicle of Social Change in 2014: “We can’t require or order anyone to use anything, we’re all separate entities.”
Because of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations to bring eSCARS into the 21st Century, the Board of Supervisors approved new funding, adding four new full-time staff.
“We have gone from AOL dialup to the iPhone 10 in the course of five years,” said Brad McCartt, who now leads the unit.
The system’s web interface has been dramatically updated, while the beefed-up eSCARS team has fanned out across the county training rank-and-file law enforcement officers to use the system and identify child abuse.
McCartt can rattle off story after story about how the training and the data easily pulled from eSCARS has protected children.
There was the case of a neighbor who was accused of sexually abusing a child. The responding officer used the system to find three other potential victims. The officer interviewed them all, and with their combined disclosures was able to press charges against the suspected abuser.
In another, a law enforcement officer scanned eSCARS to see how many children were in the home before he drove over to investigate suspected child maltreatment. When he asked the mother how many children she had, she said one.
Knowing that she had two children because of what he had seen in the system, the officer said he wasn’t going to leave until he “had eyes on” the second child. He ended up driving the mother and child to an L.A. suburb where he found the second child with the mother’s boyfriend. The child was badly bruised – a clear victim of child abuse, McCartt said.
Another key development has been the countywide roll-out of the Emergency Response Investigation Service, which pulls law enforcement and child welfare data through an app available on child abuse investigators’ smartphones.
And as a direct outgrowth of the Blue Ribbon Commission, sheriff’s deputies now have to fill out a form cataloguing every call of abuse, even if no criminal child abuse is suspected.
But having robust surveillance isn’t necessarily enough, according to Michael Nash who leads the county’s Office of Child Protection – an agency created as an integral part of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations.
“Certainly I think the county is more vigilant,” Nash said. “But there is still more work that needs to be done between child welfare and law enforcement in actually investigating abuse and neglect.”
Nash pointed to missed opportunities for law enforcement and child welfare to co-investigate allegations of child abuse in the lead up to the death of a 10-year-old boy named Anthony Avalos in June of 2018. Much like Gabriel’s, Anthony’s death involved torture at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, and his family was previously known to county’s child protection system.
Just last month, in the dusty L.A. exurbs of the Antelope Valley, where both Gabriel and Anthony once lived, the county launched a pilot in which social workers and sheriff’s deputies respond to allegations of physical and sexual abuse together – either riding out in one car or meeting at the site of the suspected maltreatment. As part of the pilot, social workers and deputies will conduct joint interviews with suspects and alleged victims and compare notes throughout.
Nash pointed to this and a long list of other areas where the county has made strides toward implementing the reforms envisioned by the Blue Ribbon Commission five years ago. But, he added:
“Let’s be real, there is a ton more work that needs to be done. We are by no means in a position to declare victory.”