The number of child homicides committed by parents and caretakers in Los Angeles County dropped slightly in 1994, marking the third consecutive year of decline.
Accidental child deaths, suicides and fetal deaths also fell, resulting in a 27.5% decrease in fatalities reported to the county's Child Death Review Team.
Although team members found the statistics promising, they were reluctant to place too much significance on the decline.
"We're very circumspect about it," said Deanne Tilton Durfee, noting that the team has previously seen data fluctuations.
At the same time, Durfee, director of the county's Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, said the figures no doubt reflected a rising public awareness of child abuse issues and an increasing focus on very young children by the county Department of Children and Family Services.
Released Tuesday in the council's sixth annual report, the 1994 data tracked 39 child homicides by parents or caretakers, compared to 41 in 1993.
Other fatalities in 1994, the most recent statistics available, included 70 accidental deaths, 28 suicides, 26 fetal deaths and 21 cases in which the coroner's office was unable to determine the manner of death.
The issue of child deaths also came up at the county supervisor's meeting Tuesday.
In a unanimous vote, supervisors approved the establishment of an inspector general's post in the auditor-controller's office to investigate the deaths of children under the current or past jurisdiction of Dependency Court or the family services department.
Supervisor Gloria Molina, author of the motion, said it was vital to have an impartial, independent analysis of such deaths. "We need to do all that we can to eliminate this tragedy from reoccurring by trying to find out what happened," she said.
In a sign of the political sensitivity of such deaths, the supervisors amended the motion to require that they be immediately notified of the fatal abuse or neglect of any child in the county's child protective system.
The council report found that families had previously been referred to child protective services in 31% of the homicide cases reported to the child death review team in 1994.
The failure of social service agencies to sometimes prevent the deaths of children under their watch was highlighted by last year's beating death of a 2-year-old North Hollywood boy--a case that has been bitterly criticized by some state legislators.
In what Durfee described as the first effort of its kind in the nation, the county is this week starting a computerized index to identify at-risk children before they are seriously hurt. Law enforcement, health and social services agency workers who suspect a child may be in danger can enter comments in the confidential index, thus creating a single record that can alert authorities to potential problems.
In that same vein, the council's report calls for reform of family reunification law to put a greater emphasis on child welfare. Durfee said there is currently such a priority on keeping families together that even parents who abandon their infant in a dumpster are likely to get the child back.
Noting that many of the 1994 child homicides by parents or caretakers were committed by a parent's friend or companion, usually male, the council suggested that county agencies take care to evaluate anyone who will have significant contact with a child the agencies are overseeing.
The council also recommended that social agencies make a greater effort to involve fathers and male caretakers in child-abuse prevention programs and that siblings of children who have died traumatically be given grief and mourning counseling.
Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.
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Drop in Child Killings
The sixth annual report of the Los Angeles County Inter- Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect shows a continuing decline in child homicides committed by parents or caretakers. The most recent data, for 1994, reflects a 5% drop from the previous year.
Source: Los Angeles County Inter- Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.