Long Beach police officials say a recent audit proves that its hesitance to send officers out on child abuse and neglect calls was based on preliminary investigations, not negligent or haphazard decision-making.
In May, the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) received scrutiny from The Chronicle of Social Change and the Los Angeles Daily News in the wake of a report from the District Attorney’s office that showed how the LBPD investigated reports of suspected abuse according to the county’s Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting system, or ESCARS.
According to the report released April 1, the LBPD chose not to send out officers to investigate reports of suspected child abuse 46 percent of the time, one of the highest rates among the county’s 44 law enforcement agencies. The subsequent coverage of LBPD’s child abuse investigations spurred a follow-up audit from the District Attorney’s office last month as well as a visit in May from Dan Scott, a retired child abuse expert for the Sheriff’s Department.
But in recent conversations about the LBPD’s policies on investigating child abuse and neglect, detectives and managers in the department’s family services division are adamant that all reports through the ESCARS system receive close scrutiny and an investigation.
“All the SCARS are vetted,” said Lieutenant Steve Lauricella, head of the department’s Family Services Division, which includes LBPD’s child abuse detail. “All of them get eyes. If it rises to the level where the communications center supervisor believes there’s an immediate danger or risk to a child, we’ll send out a unit.”
LBPD passing on an immediate service call by a uniformed police officer doesn’t mean that a police investigation won’t take place, according to Lauricella. All reports of abuse and neglect are followed up with investigations that include:
- A supervisor review
- Checks of internal and criminal records
- Checks of Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) databases
- A look for previous service calls to the family
- Phone call follow-up to schools, if necessary
“We will look to see if we have a history with this family,” said LBPD Sergeant Gail Dennison. “[A particular] ESCAR might be a report about neglect but we’re still going to run it through our systems and run it through DCFS. This may be about general neglect but the last two reports we had for this family were physical abuse. So we’re going to look and say, ‘What do we really have with this family?’”
LBPD brass and detectives are eager to dispel the idea that the police department is careless about how it follows up with cases of suspected child abuse. Members of the Family Services Division point to a positive audit of its methods by the District Attorney’s office in June.
“Our definition of ‘no crime suspected’ and ‘no investigation’ were different than the DA’s office,” she says. “If a call for service wasn’t generated, then even though we did this internal investigation, we still cleared it ‘no investigation’ because we didn’t generate a call for service and send an actual car to the house. That’s why our statistics might look higher than some other agencies.
“When we met with the District Attorney’s audit team recently and went over the process, they said you should be clearing them ‘no crime suspected’ because you’re doing an investigation. Every report is investigated.”
The meeting with the DA’s office has prompted a change to the way the LBPD responds to ESCARS reports. But even with a new understanding of the categories that the DA’s office uses, the attention to the ESCARS reports has sparked a conversation about the role of law enforcement agencies in child safety.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, a year-long examination of the child welfare system in Los Angeles County that culminated in a report in April, described child protection as more than just the responsibility of DCFS. The recommendations of the commission’s report included calls to strengthen the response of law enforcement agencies to child abuse and to offer increased training of personnel about how to handle child abuse cases.
According to retired child abuse investigator Tom Sirkel, law enforcement agencies should re-think the idea that allegations of child abuse only deserve immediate attention when they rise to the level of a crime.
“What we need is a change in philosophy,” said Sirkel, who retired as operations and training lieutenant of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Victims Bureau after 39 years in the organization. “Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t get to choose which cases they go out to. Like the Sherriff’s Department, they need to roll out to every call.”
Members of the LBPD Family Services Division are confident, though, the department’s policies and training are able to protect children in Long Beach.
“I’m very proud of our system,” said Dawn Collinske, acting sergeant of the Child Abuse Detail. “I think we overwork these cases. We really put a lot into these cases.”
“It’s children and you want to sleep at night.”