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Recession Propels Increase in Child Abuse : Families: In Central Los Angeles, neglect cases are 25% higher than in other parts of the county.

March 20, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Propelled by the stress of unemployment, the need for housing and other problems related to the poor economy, Los Angeles County recorded an increase in child abuse and neglect cases between 1992 and 1993, according to a recent report.

The toll on families was especially high in Central Los Angeles, where the number of neglect cases was about 25% higher than in other parts of the county.

In nearly all major categories of child abuse and neglect charted by the county, emergency calls rose 24% between 1992 and 1993, according to an annual report by the county Department of Children's Services.

A separate county report that broke down calls to the department's child abuse hot line by ZIP code revealed that the 90044 area, a 5.3-square mile zone bordered by Slauson and El Segundo boulevards and Normandie and Western avenues, logged the greatest number of child abuse and neglect reports in the county.

"The reality in L.A. is we have a huge population of people who have been dislocated by the economy and unable to get jobs," said Peter Digre, director of the Department of Children's Services.

"You've got this huge population that has slipped out of the ability to really raise their kids and has slipped into the welfare system or out of the housing market."

Countywide, reports of general neglect--including lack of adequate shelter, clothing, food, medical care or supervision--went up 40%, the largest increase among eight child abuse categories compared to 1992.

Reports of sexual abuse rose 28%, while those regarding exploitation increased 27%. Exploitation includes coercing a child into prostitution or pornography or forcing a young child to work to provide money for a family, department officials said.

The report was based on emergency telephone calls made to the department's hot line reporting abuse and neglect cases involving children from birth to age 19. There was no breakdown of comparative figures for Central Los Angeles.

But a separate nine-month survey last year tracking emergency calls from April to December showed that the area logged 2,354 calls reporting sexual abuse, 4,800 for physical abuse, 2,486 for general neglect, 413 for emotional abuse and 685 for drug-exposed children.

About a third of calls reporting drug-dependent children countywide came from the area. Central Los Angeles has had the highest number of drug-exposed infants in the county for the past several years, department officials said. Countywide, calls reporting drug-exposed children recorded the only drop between 1992 and 1993, falling 10%.

However, reported figures for drug-exposed infants may not clearly reflect the number of babies born with drugs in their system since not all hospitals test mothers or children for the presence of drugs, said Priscilla Drew, a reporter-liaison for the department's child abuse hot line.

"If the hospital is unaware that the mom has a history of drug abuse and if she doesn't report it and doesn't show signs, it won't get reported," Drew said.

In the 90044 ZIP code, there was a drop in the past year in reports of drug-exposed newborns and general neglect, although the numbers remained higher than elsewhere in the county, said Charles Edwards, head of Project Los Angeles 90044, a three-year pilot program designed to tackle chronic problems of abuse in the area.

Poverty is the main cause of neglect in the 90044 area and other areas, department officials said.

"The drop in numbers may or may not have something to do with the work we've done in the project, but we have been very successful in our approach in dealing with these families," Edwards said.

The program is part of the department's family preservation efforts to keep children with their families and work on problems that might lead children to be placed in foster care. Most often, Digre said, families in these programs have trouble providing enough food, housing and clothing for their children, all of which are considered problems of neglect.

"Rather than putting five kids in foster care, why not spend $500 for a refrigerator if that's what they need?" Digre said.

Drew also said an increase in family preservation could result in a drop in reporting of cases, but there are no figures to be sure.

Part of the increase in calls is due to rising awareness of child abuse and neglect, she said.

About 10% of calls do not warrant referrals for home visits, the first step in dealing with cases in the department, officials said. Whether a case is opened is based on criteria discovered during a home visit.

Of the remaining calls, about eight out of 10 are resolved within six weeks, either through family preservation, counseling or a voluntary referral service. The rest become full cases--often ending up in dependency court and lasting three to six months, said Douglas Steinmeyer, program specialist for the department.

The department handles dependency court cases of about 1,200 children per month from throughout the county, Steinmeyer said. Cases usually go to dependency court for official permission from a judge ordering family preservation measures or placing a child in foster care.

Incidents of Child Abuse

The following is a breakdown of child abuse reports responded to by Children's Social Workers in 1992 and 1993:

1992 1993 % OFCHANGE Sexual Abuse 21,580 27,597 +28% Physical Abuse 50,398 61,111 +21% Severe Neglect 20,221 25,1407 +24% General Neglect 19,190 26,904 +40% Emotional Abuse 5,512 6,674 +21% Exploitation 579 733 +27% Caretaker Absence 13,795 15,776 +14% Infants Born Addicted to Drugs 2,973 2,678 -10% TOTALS 134,248 166,613 +24%

SOURCE: County Department of Children's Services

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