Los Angeles’ Child Abuse Reporting System Underfunded & Underutilized

Better information sharing between law enforcement and child welfare topped a list of recommendations made to Los Angeles’ Board of Supervisors by a blue ribbon commission created to reform the county’s child protective services.

The county doesn’t lack for motivation on the subject; it already shelled out $2 million to build a software program meant to help child welfare agencies and law enforcement share information about suspected abuse. But five years after the system was phased in, funding woes and a lack of mandate has stemmed its usefulness.

The Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System, or E-SCARS, won two county awards and promised to give first responders timely information that could help protect children. But it was built without much thought about how to force agencies to actually use it, or who would pay to maintain it, and that has left critical information that could improve child safety just beyond the fingertips of those who need it most.

During a September 2013 presentation to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, Susan Steinfeld of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office cited a number of outstanding issues impeding E-SCARS’ use and effectiveness. Beyond straightforward problems, like the need to update the system so it works with the latest edition of Microsoft Windows, more obdurate problems remain.

Steinfeld could not be reached for comment. But in a phone interview, the DA’s Office confirmed that the use of E-SCARS is not enforced across child welfare-serving agencies in Los Angeles County.

“We can’t require or order anyone to use anything, we’re all separate entities,” said Mike Gargiulo, assistant head of the DA’s Family Violence Division.  “We’re working on a memo of understanding between law enforcement and DCFS that might make it required, as sort of a best practices kind of thing, but right now it isn’t.”

E-SCARS was created in 2005 and launched in 2009 by three Los Angeles County agencies: the District Attorney’s office, the Department of Children and Family Services, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The system was created in response to California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, which required that DCFS and law enforcement cross-report allegations of suspected child abuse to each other to prevent cases from falling through the cracks.

E-SCARS is an online reporting system that provides child welfare agencies with one central database containing histories of all abuse or neglect allegations, investigative findings and other information pertaining to a child or suspected perpetrator.

This system links DCFS’s Child Protection Hotline with the District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and 45 other municipal police departments, and all city prosecutors’ offices.

“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, it helps us get a better sense of who our suspect is, helps us see if there’s a pattern or if the alleged victim has a history of making things up,” said Garjiulo.

E-SCARS was designed to make police work and social work more efficient. Its promise on that account earned it two Productivity & Quality Awards from the Quality and Productivity Commission back in 2010. From the nominee descriptions:

“One of the significant results of E-SCARS is the elimination of multiple responses by law enforcement. Overall, investigation time is reduced, children are less traumatized since they no longer experience multiple interviews, and there is greater cooperative effort among children’s social workers and police officers.”

But four years after the praise and almost a decade since the system was conceptualized to fulfill state law, it is still underutilized. One reason is that none of the original $2 million grant from the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission was set aside for system maintenance and upgrades, or if it was the money has run out.

“My understanding is that the money is all gone,” Gargiulo said in a phone interview. “There’s going to have to be a request by one of the departments or all of us together to go to the Board to ask for more money.”

According to LA County’s Class and Salary Listings for 2014, a management-level Information Technology employee’s salary is around $108,000 annually. A single employee dedicated to E-SCARS’ maintenance would go a long way toward ensuring the system is up-to-date and fully functional.

In addition to needing new money for system maintenance, there is also the question of institutional inertia. Inundated with ever-evolving and discarded software, there may be resistance among various departments within these agencies to fully embrace E-SCARS.

In the 2012 report that addressed systemic issues in DCFS and was part of the impetus for the creation of the blue ribbon commission itself, the lead attorney found 63 different information systems and 17 more in development.

“As the number of these systems has grown over time, so does the potential for systems overload,” wrote the report’s author Amy Shek Naamani.

Under such a burden, Vanessa Rizzo, who audits E-SCARS for the DA’s office, finds it unsurprising that the program hasn’t been more widely used.

“It’s a new system,” Rizzo said. “People want to make sure the system works and that it’s going to keep working.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection suggested, in its interim recommendations released in December 2013, that E-SCARS should be “utilized fully by all relevant agencies and receive the necessary support to be well-maintained and enhanced.”

The interim report also stated that “The District Attorney’s Office should increase its oversight of the law enforcement response and sharing of information, including cross-reporting between DCFS and law enforcement agencies, to ensure that each agency carries out its mandated investigative response.”

E-SCARS’ capacity to provide a level of case tracking and auditing that was previously impossible coupled with the blue ribbon commission’s recommendations could mean that child abuse reporting in Los Angeles County has the potential to become the protective, closed-loop system it was intended to be.

“It’s the first time that you can see all these reports at once — the history is right at someone’s fingertips,” said Rizzo.

Christie Renick is Fostering Media Connections’ Southern California Coordinator. 

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