Wednesday, March 30, 2011


New data show how the Los Angeles Times 
blew the story on child abuse fatalities

Add the new data released today to all the other revelations about the newspaper’s shoddy reporting and the Times case against child welfare reform in Los Angeles collapses like a house of cards.

UPDATE, APRIL 2: See also the very good story in the Los Angeles Daily News.
UPDATE MARCH 31: See also the very good analysis of the new data at WitnessLA.

Pursuant to a resolution of the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County has released data on deaths of children “known to the system” all the way back to 2000.

However, the figures before 2005 and after can’t be compared because of a radical change in which types of deaths were reported by the County Coroner.  (See Page 10 of Attachment A in the report released late today for details).

But that still gives us enough data to compare DCFS before and after the waiver from federal financing restrictions which the Los Angeles Times falsely suggested compromised child safety and led to more child abuse deaths.

The waiver began in 2008.  The decline in entries into care it should have produced was thwarted by the foster-care panic set off by the Times stories.  (Full details are in our report on the panic.)  The waiver probably did prevent the panic from being even worse.

The one thing that is abundantly clear from the data is that there is no correlation between the number of children taken away by DCFS over the course of a year, and the number of children “known to the system” who died.  The only pattern is no pattern.  And as NCCPR has noted before, there is no evidence of any kind that the waiver compromised safety.  The key data are at the end of this post, and the full report is available here.

This is not particularly surprising.  There are 2.75 million children in Los Angeles. In 2010 there were 55,443 children who have open cases with DCFS.  Add in the number who ever have been investigated by DCFS at any time in their childhoods, or whose siblings ever were subject to such an investigation, and, of course, the number gets vastly higher.  The only acceptable goal for child abuse deaths is zero.  But while each death of a child “known to the system” is the worst form of tragedy, they are needles in a huge haystack.

It makes no sense to believe you can find all the needles by attempting to vacuum up the entire haystack.  But that, in effect, is what the Times was suggesting.

The failure of this approach is borne out by this study from a Texas think tank which actually tends to be sympathetic to a take-the-child-and-run approach.  Nevertheless, they were forced to conclude that :

 The rate at which people report child abuse does not contribute to more child abuse deaths.

 The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation does not contribute to more deaths.

 The rate at which a state takes children from their parents does not contribute to more deaths.

In short, none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contributes anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.

So, what does reduce child abuse deaths? According to the report:

●Reducing poverty

●Reducing teen pregnancy

●More investment in prevention programs (which is, of course, exactly what DCFS was trying to do with the waiver).

Two other points stand out:

●Between 2000 and 2010, 37 percent of the deaths actually occurred while the children were in out-of-home care; in 2010 it still was 25 percent.  That does not mean that substitute caregivers were responsible for all of those deaths.  It’s possible that the children died of abuse inflicted before they were taken away, or during a visit with birth parents. And it also includes deaths not due to abuse or neglect at all. But this certainly deserves further investigation.

● Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich deserve credit for forgoing past practice of the supervisors – which was to rush to come up with a suitably- outraged sound bite – and seek hard facts instead, by sponsoring the resolution requesting these data. 

The silver lining to the recent controversy over child welfare in Los Angeles has been the mature response by the Board.  That should make the job of running DCFS permanently a little more attractive to good candidates.

As Ridley-Thomas said in a press release:

It is particularly important to resist the temptation to exploit child deaths to push ideological agendas.  The CEO’s report shows we cannot honestly link child deaths to specific policies or the performance of particular government departments or individuals. …  It would be negligent to be satisfied with any total more than zero; but it is also reckless to suggest there are quick fixes.  We must shun policy gimmicks that produce sound bites for news conferences but yield no true solutions.

Add these latest findings to what we already known about how the Times distorted the evaluation of the waiver, and the well-documented  allegations that reporter Garrett Therolf quoted people as saying things they never actually said, and the entire Times case against reform in Los Angeles County collapses like a house of cards.

Of course, that’s not how the Times will write it.  Given how they handled findings challenging their system for evaluating teachers, no doubt the Times headline will be something like: “County data confirm Times findings on child abuse deaths.”

But I suspect most people in Los Angeles know better than to believe that anymore.


Calendar Year
Deaths from all causes
200 / 175*
Children removed from their homes

*For 2010, the county was able to re-analyze data in ways not available in previous years.  As a result, they came up with two different figures, one before the re-analysis, one after.  Full details are in the county power point presentation, starting on Page 10.

**This figure includes an estimate for December 2010, since the figure was not available at the time the county fulfilled our Public Records Act request.

Fatality Data: William T. Fujioka, Response to Reporting Aggregate Trend Data on Child Deaths Board Motion, County of Los Angeles, Chief Executive Office, March 31, 2011, available online at
Entries: DCFS responses to California Public Records Act requests submitted by NCCPR.  Full details are in our report on the Los Angeles County foster care panic.