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Child Abuse, Suicides Rising in L.A. County

November 09, 1994|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reports of child abuse and deaths rose in nearly every category in 1993, led by a grim toll of youthful suicides that have child welfare experts perplexed and worried about the well-being of children in Los Angeles County.

Forty-four young people killed themselves last year, the most such suicides recorded in any of the six years such statistics have been kept. The youngest victim was 11. In nearly three-quarters of the cases, the method of choice was a firearm, usually a family gun.

The bleak numbers are included in a report to be released today by the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN), which also found that the overall number of child abuse cases jumped nearly 24% in 1993. The council was established in 1978 to review child deaths and abuse.

"Being a child in Los Angeles County is probably more difficult now than it has ever been," said ICAN Executive Director Deanne Tilton. "They are living in a place where violence abounds and where stresses due to the economy, isolation and lack of services contribute to fear and insecurity."

The report lands at a time when public attention has been galvanized by the tragic deaths of two young South Carolina boys allegedly killed by their mother. Their deaths have sparked a renewed concern over the exploitation and abuse of children and how such cases can be prevented.

But in one of the few downturns locally, child abuse homicides in Los Angeles County actually dropped, with 41 reported in 1993 compared to 46 in 1992. It was the second year of decline in that category, following a record 61 victims in 1991. The report notes that the rate of child homicides by parents or caretakers has dipped from 1 in 10,000 children in 1989 to 1 in 13,225 in 1993.

Still, over the past five years, not a month has passed in Los Angeles County without the death of a child under age 2 at the hands of a supposed protector.

Mothers, the largest category of perpetrators, were involved in 25 of the slayings. Seventy percent of the child abuse homicides were caused by direct assault--head bashing, punches to the stomach, strangulation, suffocation.

Two of the 1993 victims, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old, were shot by their parents or caretaker. One father fed his 3-month-old daughter a fatal concoction of 20 to 30 iron tablets, which he ground up in her formula. The majority of victims--69%--were under age 2.

Despite the public attention given to child abuse homicides and the tragic nature of such cases as the one in South Carolina, the difference between an abused child and one abused to death is only a matter of degree, child welfare experts noted.

"For every child who dies, at least 10 kids are hospitalized for abuse," said Michael Durfee, a child psychiatrist with the county Department of Health Services and an expert on child abuse prevention. "Most assaults on kids involve an explosion, and whether one explosion kills a kid or results in injury is just luck. If we want to prevent these deaths, we have to prevent abuse."

The statistics were gathered by social service providers, county agencies, schools, hospitals and law enforcement officials who documented cases ranging from the murder of a newborn girl found at Los Angeles International Airport with tape covering her mouth and nose to the death of a 16-year-old boy who, despondent over not making his high school football team, hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

For many years, educators and law enforcement officials have attributed rising child abuse rates to increased public awareness and better reporting methods. But there is mounting evidence that, in Los Angeles County at least, the numbers reflect real increases, spurred in part by a protracted recession that has strained the psyches of the region's children as well as its adults.

Children suffered more physical and sexual abuse, severe neglect, exploitation, emotional abuse and lack of adequate food, shelter and clothing than ever before, according to the report.

And they suffered accidental deaths at an alarming rate as well. One hundred and four accidental deaths were reported in 1993, including 40 drownings, the most water-related deaths in the last five years.

"There is a definite parallel in the rise of abuse and neglect and the rise in the last several years of welfare recipients, unemployment and economic strains," Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, chairman of the council, said in an interview. "Certainly the depressed economy has created a highly tense atmosphere in many families, where a child . . . suddenly becomes a burden."

The statistic most perplexing to child welfare experts is the explosion of childhood suicides, the 44 deaths representing a 69% increase over 1992 figures. Child psychiatrist Durfee called the suicides of an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old last year "an incredible comment" on the state of the condition of children in the county.

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