In 2013 the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) fielded 3,195 reports of suspected child abuse. The agency chose not to investigate 1,456 cases, nearly half of all the reports it received that year.
“When you have agencies not even responding to suspected child abuse reports and closing them without an investigation, it is mind boggling,” said Dan Scott, a former sergeant in the Sheriff’s Department and commissioner on the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. “Long Beach is a prime example and it ought to be exposed. Not only because McDonell is running, but because this is Long Beach PD, it is not just some Podunk department.”
Among the county’s 46 law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department, Long Beach stood out for the sheer proportion of child abuse reports it chose not to investigate, according to letters sent to every agency chief from the DA’s office and shared with The Chronicle of Social Change.
McDonnell’s opponents for Sheriff reacted with words like “explosive” and “shameful” when told of the wide discrepancies in responses between LBPD and other agencies, while McDonnell and his department offered no explanation.
And, the release of the data renews focus on the most concrete result of the recently sunsetted commission on child protection: the DA’s request from the Board of Supervisors for more money to better regulate the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System (ESCARS).
The form letter sent to McDonnell from DA Lacey in April provides figures on action taken by agencies in respect to reports of child abuse that are generated through the Department of Children and Family Services’ child abuse hotline. The ESCARS computer software program, launched in 2009, then pushes out the reports to law enforcement agencies throughout the county. As part of its “obligation to audit cross-reporting compliance,” the DA’s office provides law enforcement agencies with figures on whether they investigated a report and whether or not they suspected a crime had been committed.
“That is pretty explosive information,” said Todd Rogers, a candidate for Sheriff. Rogers, who currently serves as assistant Sheriff and said he had years of experience in responding to reports of suspected child abuse. While he said LBPD’s glaring inaction could be an anomaly, he added that “the numbers are alarming and we need to go out on all of them [child abuse reports].”
Bob Olmsted, another candidate, who worked to expose deputy abuse and corruption in the county’s jails after years in the department, was less forgiving.
“If they are not looking into child abuse cases shame on them,” Olmsted said.
Beyond the rate of investigation, the types of responses differed wildly from agency to agency across the county. In Long Beach, roughly a quarter of the reports wound up being suspected of a crime, while the Sheriff’s Department had detectives conduct follow-up investigations on one third of the reports they received.
Compared to an average response rate of 18 percent for all the county’s law enforcement agencies excluding the Sherriff’s Department and LAPD, Long Beach’s 46 percent is glaring.
Requests for comment on these discrepancies to both the Long Beach Police Department and Jim McDonnell’s campaign were not immediately responded to.
“We need time for our Department to review and evaluate the information you are asking about,” wrote Nancy Pratt, a public information officer with LBPD, in an email to The Chronicle.
Three Paralegals and a Deputy DA
On April 3, two days after sending out her letter to the county’s law enforcement agencies, DA Lacey sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors requesting funding to pay for three paralegals and a deputy district attorney to bolster the agency’s oversight of ESCARS. The request had been prompted by a slate of recommendations on improving child welfare submitted by the Blue Ribbon Commission in December of 2013.
County CEO William Fujioka’s proposed budget issued on April 15 did not include a line item for the DA’s request, setting up a funding fight that could stretch over the summer. That said, among the commission’s many recommendations, improving law enforcement response to reports of suspected child abuse is the only one that has an agency making a budget play thus far.
Slow to Act
On April 22, nine of the 10 Blue Ribbon commissioners presented their final recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. The Board directed the CEO to consult with the key agencies involved in child welfare and submit fiscal and legal analyses by May 20.
“In reviewing the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations, we need to fully evaluate each recommendation and determine whether it adds, detracts or duplicates the County’s child protection efforts,” read a motion made by Supervisors Don Knabe and Zev Yarolsvsky that day, who both voted against the creation of the commission in the first place.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the commission’s most vocal advocate on the Board, made a motion of his own, striking an outwardly decisive tone:
“The Commission having fulfilled its mission, the Board now must fulfill its duty to protect the children under its care and supervision by moving forward with system-wide reform to improve the County’s child welfare system.”
Despite the call for action, on May 6, the Board of Supervisors sent an email to commission members, saying that the follow up meeting was pushed to June 10.
“Since the Interim Report was issued four months ago,” the commissioners wrote in their final recommendations submitted in April, “another 5,000 referrals of child abuse have been investigated without systemic reform. Each day we wait for reform, 40 more infants are reported as possible victims of child abuse or neglect.”
Nobody can predict where those reports will come from. But if they are sent to a police station in Long Beach, we can assume that the department will respond about half the time.
“Basically what they are doing is rolling the dice on the child’s life and hoping it doesn’t come up craps,” Scott said.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Teddy Lederer and Victor Valle contributed to this story.