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System Overload: Rise in Abuse, Neglect Results in a Sputtering Juvenile Court

December 27, 1987|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

Each day, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Harris sits behind his cluttered desk at Juvenile Court, a cigarette dangling aimlessly from one hand, and is host to a parade of social workers bearing bad news. The litany is invariably horrific:

A young girl says her mother's boyfriend has a habit of fondling her and urinating on her.

A boy exhibits cigarette burns on his back and reports his parents gag him and his siblings with handkerchiefs if they misbehave.

A teen-age boy whose father forced him to watch while he killed his mother needs a foster home and counseling.

For Harris, this grim daily agenda has become all too routine. In the past several years, the number of children whose tragic home lives have become an issue for the court has skyrocketed, nearly doubling since June, 1984. Month after month, the lineup of youngsters taken from abusive or neglectful families and designated dependents of the court grows longer, with the severity of physical and sexual injuries they endure increasing as well.

Numbers Numb the Mind

The statistics are staggering. In fiscal year 1986, there were 52,000 reported cases of child abuse in San Diego County, with almost 3,100 of those resulting in requests that the court assume jurisdiction over the child. That's up from 26,000 total cases and 1,700 so-called "dependency petitions" in fiscal 1982.

Besides victims of physical abuse, sexual molestation and neglect, the youngsters who become dependents of the court include children abandoned by destitute families, runaways whose parents say they can't control them and babies born to drug-addicted mothers. Some juveniles are being prosecuted in separate proceedings for criminal offenses.

Experts, noting that the increase in such cases far outstrips that which might be expected to accompany the county's population growth, point to a combination of factors to explain the surge, from an increased vigilance by society toward child abusers to the erosion of the traditional family structure that served as a deterrent to abuse.

Whatever the reasons behind the increase, there are obvious consequences.

The mushrooming numbers have literally overwhelmed the county's Juvenile Court system, designed for a much smaller caseload typical of a bygone era. The district attorney's office is woefully understaffed, with lawyers stretched so thin they have scant time to prepare their cases before court appearances.

Meanwhile, the stress of the burden on county social workers--who sometimes juggle twice as many cases as the 27 the state says is manageable--has contributed to a critical attrition problem. About 30% of the employees have been leaving the ranks annually in recent years. Officials say the turnover means a disturbing percentage of workers are green, which can lower the quality of an investigation in a given case.

Judges, too, have felt the weight of the swelling tide. In November, the court's eight judges and referees presided over 5,000 dependency and delinquency hearings--up from 2,000 in 1982. Many jurists frequently handle 40 case reviews in a single afternoon, quitting as late as 6:30--well after their colleagues in Superior Court downtown close for the day.

Finally, the court's physical plant is Finally, the court's physical plant is creaking under the load as well--with no relief in sight. There aren't enough seats in the lobby--where the constant din and teeming crowd make it resemble the floor of the New

York Stock Exchange--or spaces in the parking lot. An eighth courtroom was added recently to cope with the expanding calendar, but with its cramped confines and lack of a telephone or other basic amenities, officials admit it's makeshift at best.

"It has just been horrible," said Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell, presiding judge at Juvenile Court for two years. "The D.A. does not have adequate staffing; the social workers are in tears from the stress of not being able to do their job because they are spread too thin. Everybody is breaking their backs and just wearing out. Something has to give."

Those who work in the Juvenile Court arena say it is not the personal strain of the growing load that bothers them most. Rather, they worry that the burden is compromising the quality of care given the hundreds of cases that chug through the system each day.

Even the most conscientious social worker or the most dedicated deputy district attorney will make mistakes under such overwhelmingly hectic conditions, they say. And in this line of work, those mistakes can have tragic consequences for the young victims and their families.

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