Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley — the remote area that has seen several of the county’s worst child welfare tragedies over the past six years — is at the center of a new philanthropic effort to prevent child maltreatment and help support vulnerable children and families.
The Antelope Valley Resource Infusion (AVRI) is a working group of public agencies, nonprofit organizations and funders — including the Ballmer Group, the Reissa Foundation and Casey Family Programs. The group aims to improve the area’s child welfare system by building collaboration among public and private child welfare agencies that work in the area by utilizing a “collective impact” strategy that will structure opportunities for working together.
The Ballmer Group and the Reissa Foundation have each contributed $50,000 to the organizing effort, and Casey Family Programs paid for some participants to travel to a collective impact conference last month. According to participants like Roxana Martinez of First 5 L.A., the goal of the AVRI project is to create or develop a backbone organization in the region that could operate like an air-traffic controller, linking social workers to resources and better supporting an often-isolated community still reeling from the deaths of three young boys.
“We all want to protect kids and we want to ensure that they all have this incredible future ahead of them,” said Martinez, who has lived in the Antelope Valley for more than two decades. “But what is shaping the work is the desire to change the conditions that lead to these tragic events. We want to make sure that we’re rooted, not in the darkness of what happened, but in the light of what is possible.”
At a meeting of the Los Angeles County Children’s Commission on Monday, Supervisor Kathryn Barger described the collaborative effort as a “silver lining” after another child death in the Antelope Valley earlier this year. In July, 4-year-old Palmdale boy Noah Cuatro died from injuries allegedly caused by his parents, who have been arrested and charged with his murder. This is the third time since 2013 that a child with a previous history with the county’s Department of Children and Family Services has been allegedly killed by his parents and caregivers in the high-desert region.
“If we want our Department of Children and Family Services to do better … we have an obligation to put in place all the services that we promised,” Barger said at the meeting. “If you were to look at what’s on paper, I feel like we need to do more.”
Located at the northern end of L.A. County, the Antelope Valley is geographically isolated from the rest of the county by distance and mountains. Its nearly 400,000 residents struggle with lower health and employment outcomes than other parts of the county.
According to a review by AVRI, life expectancy is lower in the Antelope Valley compared with other parts of the county, and the area also deals with higher-than-average rates of unemployment, diabetes and unintentional drug-related deaths. More than 41 percent of all households in the Antelope Valley have a child residing in them, compared with about 37 percent countywide, and it also has the highest child-maltreatment rates in L.A. County for children ages 0 to 5.
In the aftermath of Noah Cuatro’s death, the one issue that has risen to the forefront of discussions about the county’s child welfare response in the Antelope Valley is about DCFS’s capacity to fully staff its child welfare workforce there. A July motion by Supervisor Barger pledged to hire more social workers in DCFS’s two Antelope Valley offices by offering bonuses to social workers.
According to Frank Ramos, a DCFS deputy director who oversees the Antelope Valley, the agency has already made strides to fill vacancies in the Antelope Valley offices. DCFS has now filled 41 of 43 vacancies, but turnover remains an issue there.
“In Palmdale, a children’s social worker with two or three years experience is known as a veteran, someone that is looked up to because of their tenure,” Ramos said.
That often means that social workers must be constantly rebuild relationships with providers and services in the area — the AVRI hopes to encourage collaboration through a new organization that would coordinate services in the area. One area where the group might turn its attention is to the disproportionality of African Americans in the Antelope Valley’s child welfare system. DCFS officials said that one area of concern is the disproportionate number of child abuse or neglect referrals for parents with young African American children.
“A referral that you might not get on a Caucasian family, you will get three fold for African-American families, especially from law enforcement, school and from hospitals, the health system,” said Roxanna Flores-Aguilar, DCFS official working on quality improvement across the agency. “It’s a big-ticket item for the [AVRI] work.”
Barger hopes that the new collaboration yields better practice and resources for the Antelope Valley. In particular, she hopes to see improvements with the county’s medical hub there — the High Desert Regional Health Center — where children involved with DCFS receive forensic evaluations for child abuse. According to a recent county report, 10 out of 25 positions there remain unfilled and the facility has limited hours of operation.
“For me, perception becomes fact,” Barger said, “and my perception is that things aren’t moving the way they need to. If three child deaths isn’t enough of a reason to say it needs to be done yesterday, I don’t know what does.”