Next week, Los Angeles County will elect a new supervisor to oversee an area that has the highest rates of reported child abuse and neglect and the highest infant mortality rate in the county.
The fifth district covers about 2,800 square miles, from the tony hills of Pasadena and Glendale to sprawling exurbs of the San Gabriel and Santa Clarita Valleys.
But it is the more distant, high-desert communities of the Antelope Valley that are cause for concern.
Located about 70 miles from the seat of county-government power in downtown Los Angeles, the sleepy bedroom communities of the Antelope Valley present worrying conditions for the health and well-being of young children.
The pair of candidates vying for termed-out Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are aware of the issues facing the Antelope Valley.
“It’s like one of these Hunger Games movies where the capital gets all the benefit,” said candidate Darrell Park, a clean-energy entrepreneur. “The farther north you go, the less benefit you get.”
Kathryn Barger, a chief deputy to longtime Supervisor Antonovich, said the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is “bursting at the seams” dealing with an uptick in child-welfare cases in the Antelope Valley as it prepares to hire more social workers.
“But it’s not just about bodies on the ground,” Barger said. “We’ve got to provide services and access to those services. Mental health is underfunded up there.”
According to Barger, the situation has long been challenging because of high rates of domestic violence and substance abuse and the difficulty of many in getting to services. She sees a role for public health nurses in child-maltreatment prevention by visiting first-time parents.
A 2015 analysis from the University of Southern California School of Social Work’s Children’s Data Network looked at the number of families with children ages 0 to 5 referred for child abuse or neglect to L.A. County’s child-protective service hotline operated by DCFS.
Across the county, the rate for the county as a whole is 14.6 percent, or about 1 in 7 young children.
But in the area representing the Antelope Valley, the rate is 20.6, the highest in the county.
In its most recent report on child abuse in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect identified Antelope Valley as having the highest rates of infant mortality and child death in 2013.
According to DCFS, more children are entering the system in recent years, causing the agency to hire 150 new staff and caseworkers to handle the increased caseloads at its Lancaster and Palmdale offices. DCFS is now seeking a bigger office there to accommodate its larger presence.
According to advocates and policymakers, the elevated numbers and child-maltreatment risk are a result of the area’s unique relationship to the rest of the county.
Part of the reason is that the area remains geographically isolated. To get to the Antelope Valley, you have to travel up the 14 freeway, north of the San Gabriel Mountains, through the Angeles National Forest and into the edge of the Mojave Desert.
Sparsely populated, Antelope Valley is culturally and geographically distinct from other, more urban areas of the county. Cities like Palmdale and Lancaster have grown rapidly in recent years as many Angelenos have sought more affordable housing in the area or a slower pace of life.
But to get downtown or to other parts of the county often takes at least a couple hours, presenting challenges for the child-welfare system and others. Ferrying children to court either in Monterey Park or at the two L.A. County courts in Lancaster can take the better part of the day. Visitations with family members located in other parts of the county for children living in out-of-home placement in Antelope Valley stretches DCFS resources.
In recent years, many families have flocked to the Antelope Valley for cheaper housing after getting priced out of other areas in the county. But most still work in Los Angeles or nearby.
The availability of cheaper housing has also played a role in the area’s high maltreatment rate, according to Charles Avila, head of the Antelope Valley Child Abuse Prevention Council.
“In a normal household, a mom and dad leave for work when the kids go off to school, but here we have families leaving before the children are even up,” Avila said. “Because of that commute time, children are at home two or three hours before parents are even home.”
Jacquelyn McCroskey, a professor of social work at USC and a researcher with the Children’s Data Network, says that the huge land mass and long distances of the Antelope Valley present unique complications.
“Because of the commutes, there are fewer adults around in neighborhoods,” McCroskey said. “That means fewer community interactions and less time to get to know each other. Then you have the complications of a public transportation system that doesn’t get people to all the places they need to go.”
The population of Antelope Valley is relatively small, at about 390,000 — a fraction of the 10 million people who live in Los Angeles County as a whole. But services are not always available or easily accessed here.
“If you are looking for resources, whether that’s help finding a job, counseling or pre-natal care, you have to look harder for it,” McCroskey said. “You have to go further to get them, but it’s also hard to find the time to get to them even when you find them.”
For Avila, the key to preventing child maltreatment is a matter of education. The Antelope Valley Child Abuse Prevention Council hosts parent cafés, informal gatherings that allow parents to learn parenting skills and develop support networks that can decrease the risk of child abuse.
Despite the area’s struggles to prevent child abuse and neglect, Avila says it nurtures a sense of community.
“The Antelope Valley is very welcoming to new families coming in,” he said. “It’s still a quiet bedroom community. Neighbors know each other and neighbors take care of one another.”
For more coverage of the race for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, click here.