LOS ANGELES – Between January and May of this year, 23 children in Los Angeles County died of suspected or confirmed abuse or neglect, including drownings and traffic deaths, according to updated information provided Monday on the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services website.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle issued a statement in empathy with families and community members seeking information and said individual records are kept confidential.
“The death of a child in our community understandably affects us all very deeply. It’s natural for families and community members to want immediate answers,” Cagle said. “While state law protects the confidentiality of records for children and families who may have come to the attention of child protective services, we are able to share statistical data.”
If trends hold through the balance of this year, the numbers for 2020 reflect a decrease in both the number of deaths — which totaled 107 overall — and the percentage of deaths related to abuse or neglect. In 2019, 286 child deaths were reported to the Child Protection Hotline, of which 71 were ultimately suspected or confirmed to be related to abuse or neglect.
More than half (56%) of the 107 children whose deaths were reported to the hotline between January and May — the vast majority of which were ultimately determined not to have been caused by abuse — had a record of prior contact with DCFS, according to the data. The alleged abuse could have been entirely unrelated to the manner of death or could have been a case closed by social workers after determining that abuse had not occurred.
However, there have been high-profile cases of children — like an 8-year-old Palmdale boy tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend in 2013 — with a history of multiple calls to DCFS that failed to save their lives. Gabriel Fernandez‘ mother was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and her boyfriend was sentenced to death. Criminal charges against four social workers involved in his case management were ultimately dismissed on appeal.
Of the six children with a prior DCFS contact who died this year and have already been confirmed as cases of abuse or neglect, five were victims of their parents or a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend, according to the data. That percentage of family involvement is much higher than in past years, when parents and caregivers were responsible for 38% to 57% of fatalities. However, with such a small sample size, it can be hard to draw conclusions.
A review of the numbers dating back to 2015 shows that 40% of the time, the child’s mother is the person primarily responsible for abuse and neglect, though that varies year to year, with fathers sometimes more culpable.
Breakdowns by age, gender, race and ethnicity for the data from 2015-2020 shows that boys are much more likely to die at the hands of an abuser than girls. Children under 12 months old are most at risk, representing roughly half of the 97 deaths with prior DCFS involvement and confirmed to be have been caused by abuse or neglect. Of those specific deaths, 44% of the victims were identified as Black, 32% were Hispanic, 14% were white and 9% were categorized as other. Detailed data on deaths confirmed as abuse but without a prior call to the child welfare agency was not provided.
The DCFS webpage includes statistics on total fatalities, causes of death and child fatality demographics, among other data. The information is updated every six months and the most current data reflects reports of child deaths through May 31.
“My guiding principle has always been to make information available as quickly as possible under the law. We are public servants and we are accountable to Los Angeles County residents,” Cagle said.
The updates are handled by a unit responsible for handling requests for information under Senate Bill 39. Last year, the team processed more than 275 SB 39 requests for case records, many submitted by media representatives.
Under the law, the department is allowed to release some information when death is determined to be the result of abuse or neglect, but redacts information that the District Attorney’s Office believes would jeopardize a criminal investigation. If a case doesn’t meet the SB 39 criteria, the department is prohibited from providing information, though members of the public or media may petition the juvenile court for records.
“We have an obligation not only to be as thorough and complete as possible in our investigations of a child death but also to advance the truth,” Cagle said. “This is absolutely necessary to keep children safe, and to learn from a tragedy.”
Cagle urged residents to report suspected abuse or neglect by calling the Child Protection Hotline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-540-4000.
All of the statistics can be reviewed at https://dcfs.lacounty.gov/resources/child-fatality-data/.