Moving swiftly in the wake of the third high-profile child death to strike Los Angeles’ high desert in the past six years, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger intends to boost the area’s beleaguered child welfare workforce.
In a motion that will be heard during next Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Barger calls for the creation of a “staffing workgroup” to develop strategies to recruit and retain Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) workers. Across the county, DCFS children’s social workers have been on the job for an average of 6.1 years, according to the motion. However, those in DCFS’s Lancaster office have only averaged 4.8 years, and that number is a mere 3.8 years at the Palmdale office.
Staffing issues in the Antelope Valley, a vast swath of the county encompassing the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale north of the mountains that encircle the Los Angeles basin, have long been associated with child deaths like the one that occurred on July 6.
The day before, the parents of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro called authorities claiming that he had drowned in an apartment complex pool, according to reporting in The Los Angeles Times and other news outlets. But the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department found injuries inconsistent with drowning — and maybe more disturbingly, DCFS had fielded more than a dozen allegations of child abuse within the home. In May, a juvenile court commissioner ordered the boy removed from their home. But somehow that order was never enforced.
The unfolding tragedy has sparked a terrible countywide déjà vu. In 2013, the death of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez prompted the creation of the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. In 2014, that commission released a set of recommendations to improve the L.A.’s child welfare system, including the creation of an Office of Child Protection, hiring more social workers and adequate medical care for children involved with the child welfare system, a particular need for the Antelope Valley.
In 2018, the death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos in the Antelope Valley again drew attention to the area. Both victims suffered brutal deaths at the hands of their parents and had long histories of involvement with children and family services.
The staffing workgroup Barger is proposing will “develop a comprehensive and sustainable staffing plan with measurable outcomes, including but not limited to: local recruitment/hiring, retention, internships, financial incentives (i.e., location bonuses, pay differential, tuition forgiveness, etc.).”
A recent state audit prompted by the death of Avalos called for hiring more social workers, calling high caseloads a safety risk for children.
“When it does not ensure that regional offices meet these caseload targets, the department risks delaying its response to allegations of child abuse and neglect, which could result in some children staying in abusive homes for longer periods,” the audit reads.
Dan Scott is a retired 33-year-veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department where he worked child abuse cases. He was also a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
Scott pointed out that while a great deal of attention is being paid to how DCFS reacted in Noah’s case, the Sheriff’s Department also had a key role to play.
“Maybe it is manpower,” Scott said. “But I would want to know who handled it and did they handle it correctly or did they drop the ball.”
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.