The first sentence in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about the decline in deaths of children in the care of the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) reads:
“Far fewer Los Angeles County children died because adults had neglected or abused them in 2014, leaving elected officials and experts encouraged – and pondering why.”
There is no need to be baffled by what has been accomplished in the last year. Even though all the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to improve child welfare have not been fully implemented, they outline how the deaths of children in the care of DCFS can be further reduced and hopefully eliminated.
For example, a number of indicators help identify those children most at risk of being harmed – evidence of addiction in the family, the instability of the family, histories of violence – and inform which parents may need support to be successful. Additional measures, once fully implemented, will further strengthen the capacity of the child welfare system to be effective.
The measures include reduced caseloads, improved training on the signs of abuse and neglect, and an integrated approach to care that engages all public sector services. These strategies will mitigate significantly the risk of harm to children in child welfare. These are the factors that have contributed to the reduced number of deaths.
One change the county has made is to remove more children and place them in foster care. As a result, the number of children in foster care is rising for the first time in years. This change is alarming many families and advocates who worry that some children may be unnecessarily removed from their homes out of an overabundance of caution.
This issue must be addressed. Families are part of the solution, not the problem. If we know which families may be most at risk, then resources should be applied to assist these families. With the proper intervention, children should be kept safe in their homes.
Safety, of course, is paramount, and the risk of harm to vulnerable children must be addressed. But the removal of children from their homes and away from their extended families and communities also has risks, including abuse, neglect, and, in some instances, death.
The children and families served by Hillsides Residential Treatment Services present with complex issues requiring complex care. Residential treatment is not an alternative to the family but rather a resource for both child and family, driven by the goal of reunification, if at all possible.
Removing a child from his or her family is traumatic. If it is necessary to insure the safety of the child, it must only be done as a last resort. The solution is not just removing vulnerable children from harm’s way, but to support families in their efforts to create safe homes and communities where children can thrive.
The number of deaths of children from abuse or neglect in Los Angeles county dropped from 61 in 2013 to 32 in 2014, and that is laudable. It is also, of course, unacceptably high.
Some would say that a certain number of deaths from abuse and neglect are inevitable, but certainly we must not be satisfied with this premise. Although accidents happen that are unavoidable, tragedy could have been avoided for many of these children.
The partial implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations has contributed to the creation of a more effective child welfare system in Los Angeles. Once again, the county supervisors must be encouraged to pursue full implementation and to do so with all urgency.
The lives of children are at risk.
Joseph Costa is CEO of Hillsides, a multi-service provider in California.
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