On May 8, The Chronicle of Social Change published a story concerning wide variations in how Los Angeles’ 46 law enforcement agencies respond to reports of suspected child abuse.
The figures cited were derived from a review conducted by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office as part of its obligation to monitor the county’s Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting system, known as ESCARS.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DFCS) enters cases of suspected child abuse (SCARs) into a computer program that then notifies appropriate law enforcement agencies of suspected child abuse.
Aside from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department, the review provided information on the response rate of LA County’s 44 law enforcement agencies.
Those 44 agencies fielded a total 16,967 reports in 2013, according to letters sent to each and every police chief in Los Angeles County. On average: 18 percent were labeled as “no investigation”; 21 percent were labeled “crime suspected”; and 60 percent were labeled “no crime suspected.”
Because of the relative volume of child abuse reports received and the remarkable disparity in response compared to the overall average, The Chronicle focused on the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD). LBPD opted not to send officers to investigate reports of suspected child abuse 46 percent of the time, well above the 18 percent of all 44 agencies taken as a whole.
Long Beach was not alone.
The Inglewood Police Department chose not to send officers to investigate 332 reports of child abuse, or 36 percent of the total reports it received. At the Manhattan Beach Police Department, 23 reports (30 percent) were not investigated. And in West Covina, 125 reports (24 percent) did not warrant investigation.
As potentially vexing as these other instances may be, Long Beach, which chose not to send out an investigating officer on 1,456 SCARs, stands out.
Mike Gargiulo, a deputy district attorney overseeing the ESCARS program for District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office, came to LBPD’s defense saying that it is a “matter of semantics on some level.”
“It wouldn’t be appropriate to say that they are not investigating a large number of cases,” Gargiulo said. “They are investigating cases as they see fit.”
Lacey has endorsed Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell in his bid for county Sheriff.
On May 8, LBPD offered an explanation of these disparate numbers in a lengthy phone interview with Deputy Chief David Hendricks, and through a written statement sent on letterhead from the office of Police Chief Jim McDonnell to The Chronicle.
What emerges is a law enforcement agency intent on placating concerns of complacency, larger questions about inter-agency uniformity in responding to SCARs and how the resources available in Long Beach, and quite possibly many other agencies, affect law enforcement’s role in protecting children.
“We are doing ten to fifteen or more [SCARS] a day,” Hendricks said. “With limited capacity we have to triage these.” But, “staffing challenges be what they may, we are not going to put a child at risk.”
Gargiulo echoed Hendrick’s statement.
“We look at enough statistics of SCARs to see who is compliant,” Garguilo said. “LBPD has a high volume of SCARs. They are doing the job.”
Part of triaging this high volume of reports with a limited number of patrol officers involves determining which cases warrant on-the-ground investigation and which do not. The process starts at LBPD’s communications center, where each SCAR comes in as a fax.
“SCAR’s that meet the criteria shall be forwarded to a dispatcher who shall immediately enter a call for service on any allegation indicating suspected physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect of a child,” reads the Suspected Child Abuse Report section of the Manual of the Long Beach Police Department.
Whether or not the communications center supervisor determines that the report meets the criteria of child abuse or neglect, all SCARs are transmitted to the Child Abuse Detail where five officers and a supervisor then have apparent discretion to contact various other county and city services or not.
“All 3,195 E-SCAR reports received by the Long Beach Police Department have been thoroughly reviewed by the Department’s Child Abuse Detail,” read the statement issued by Police Chief McDonnell’s office. “This review may include contacting DCFS, LB Unified School District, involved parties, therapists, or other law enforcement agencies.”
Indeed, the police manual guidelines for suspected child abuse direct the Child Abuse Detail supervisor to contact appropriate agencies “when necessary.”
“The Long Beach Police Department understands the importance of taking appropriate action on each and every report of suspected child abuse regardless of the source,” the statement from McDonnell’s office read. “We are confident that 100 percent of our E- SCARS reports are thoroughly reviewed and we are in compliance with the DCFS reporting definitions.”
While in compliance with reporting definitions, there is still the nagging question about whether or not it is appropriate to have such a divergent response to suspected child abuse.
Gargiulo and Vanessa Rizzo, who audits ESCARS compliance for the DA, said they did not review internal policies across agencies.
When asked what remedies the DA’s office uses when agencies are not compliant, Gargiulo said, “we make a field trip.”
“We bombard them with emails,” Rizzo added.
While Gargiuolo said that the attendance at bi-annual ESCARS steering committee meetings “waxed and waned,” law enforcement agencies are improving in their capacity to respond to suspected child abuse.
“Really and truly things have gotten better than two or three years ago in terms of compliance,” Gargiulo said. “Overall things are looking up.”
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.