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State's New Legislation on Protecting Abused Children

October 10, 1987

State Sen. Robert Presley's (D-Riverside) disastrous child abuse bills SB 243 and SB 1219 will turn the clock back to the darkest days of children's services when children had to be abused severely enough--or as one official put it "bleeding in the streets"--in order to get help. In fact, the present Children's Services Department was born out of public outcry against "screening" out huge numbers of abused children for services to make the department look like it was doing its job. It's ironic that just as CDS is gaining momentum, getting the public to better report child abuse, Presley has reintroduced the very same barbarism of "screening."

Presley has stated child abuse numbers are overwhelming and "there has to be more money or fewer children." Astonishingly he decided to raise the abuse and risk levels a child must suffer to qualify for help. Under his legislation children who are battered, molested, neglected--but not glaringly enough--will be ignored.

As moral policy this is repugnant and fiscally reckless and shortsighted. For the tens of thousands of dysfunctional families and abused children, the cancer of violence will set deeper roots and beyond doubt spawn vastly more expensive, tragic and frightening problems later on. Presley hasn't yet made the connection.

The bills have features that suggest they were concocted by someone very new to child abuse such as the call for rejecting possible abuse cases based on nothing more than the first call to the Abuse Hotline. The reality behind these calls is they took weeks, months, even years of agonizing before the friend, relative, even the abuser himself picked up the phone. There is no way to determine the conditions a child is living under without social worker's visit which the law now requires. And it is just this verification that Presley seeks to choke down to a minimum.

Another feature reveals Presley is lost in the dark about the dynamics of child abuse. He seeks to confine help to the most resistant group of children while more "moderately" abused children, who respond the very best to treatment, will be ignored as insufficiently needy. And once the glaring abuse slips below Presley's high standards, the child is dropped from the rolls even though there is no reason to hope the abusive caretaker is transformed.

Presley says he favors "sanctity of family life" over "coercive intervention." This is mere rationalization for confirming the child's traditional status as property.

Continuing his dismal track record on child welfare, Gov. George Deukmejian signed the bills. But beyond the law itself, Presley and Deukmejian have created a chilling legal precedent in setting forth the new higher levels of abuse that are now to deserve social intervention. They have also established for the very first time the levels of brutality and neglect that society should find legal and acceptable.

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ask Presley to hold off on his abuse bills. They were ignored. The Los Angeles Police Department, the Grand Jury Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Los Angeles Childrens Services Commission, and the Social Workers Union also opposed the bills and were ignored. But now that the governor has made them law, a special challenge emerges for those who care about children, their safety, sanctity and survival. And that is to carefully monitor the consequences of Presley's pernicious legislation.

CHRISTINE LUND

Chatsworth

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