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Child Abuse Victim's Legacy Is Tide of Bills

Legislature: Lawmakers try to make it easier to remove children from abusive homes. But some caution that family sanctity demands limited interference.

June 11, 1996|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Almost from the moment of Lance Helms' birth at UCLA Medical Center in 1992, Los Angeles County officials questioned his parents' competence to raise the boy.

Worried about what they saw as the parents' long history of drug abuse, authorities quickly directed that Lance live with his aunt, where he remained for much of his short life. With the backing of county officials, she ultimately sought to adopt the toddler.

But the county's Dependency Court--seeking family reunification--intervened and ordered Lance to live with his father. Less than a year later, in the spring of 1995, the sandy-haired, 2 1/2-year-old North Hollywood boy was beaten to death by his father's live-in girlfriend.

Now, a year later, the tragic life and painful death of Lance Helms has touched a nerve in the Capitol, igniting an emotional rush to overhaul California's child welfare system with profound implications for how government will handle abused children in the future.

Underlying the debate is the tension between those who believe the safety of children like Lance Helms should be uppermost in the minds of authorities versus those who contend that the sanctity of the family demands minimal government interference.

Using the deaths of Lance Helms and other youngsters as a rallying cry, an increasing number of lawmakers are pushing to make it easier for authorities to remove children from homes of abusive parents and, in some instances, to free them much more quickly for adoption.

About a dozen measures are moving through the Legislature, including several that are scheduled to be heard Wednesday in a state Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

The proposals range in scope from a narrowly focused bill by Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale) intended to deny custody to parents who dump babies in trash cans to a broadly crafted measure by Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) designed to establish child safety and protection as the cornerstone of the state's child welfare system.

"In the aftermath of the brutal murder of little Lance Helms, we need to do more to protect children and provide them with the type of environment . . . [and] support that will prevent these type of killings," said Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) at a recent hearing by his subcommittee on crimes against children.

Polanco has introduced a package of bills that would establish a new, independent state agency to intervene in especially nettlesome abuse cases; improve Juvenile Court judges' education on the nature and treatment of abuse and neglect; require the state to collect information on deaths of children; and expand access to the state's Child Abuse Index kept by the Department of Justice.

Although the measures have met little public opposition, they have been hotly debated in behind-the-scenes negotiations among social workers, adoption experts, judges and other law enforcement officials responsible for the welfare of children.

What will happen in the coming months is unclear, especially since Gov. Pete Wilson's administration still is reviewing the legislation. But some shift in policy is likely to emerge, possibly in concert with a Wilson-sponsored proposal by Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa) to give judges the option of speeding up adoptions for toddlers in abuse cases.

"From the state's point of view, we're not going to put the goal of reunifying a family above the life of a child," said Lisa Kalustian, a spokeswoman for the state Health and Welfare Agency.

Some child welfare lobbyists and lawmakers urge caution in revamping the system. They say the Legislature needs to move gingerly, especially when tailoring changes to fit such high-profile cases as that of Lance Helms.

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Others question the need for a new government agency--as proposed by Polanco--to get involved in abuse cases. "We're concerned about putting another layer of bureaucracy on a bureaucracy that's not working," said Kate Burke, executive director of the California Adoption Alliance.

Assemblyman David Knowles (R-Placerville), an influential voice on child welfare issues among GOP lawmakers, said any changes need to be weighed carefully.

Knowles said he doesn't want the laws on family reunification to be toughened merely to "remove children for a spanking that went too far and that can be corrected." But on the other hand, the lawmaker said, he doesn't want to force judges "to give CPR to a family that is so dysfunctional that it might as well be declared to be dead."

Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento), who last year chaired the Assembly Judiciary Committee during hearings on the issue, said the central challenge facing lawmakers is to find the proper balance between the rights of parents and children.

In recent years, he said, "we've flipped back and forth almost willy-nilly based on what the latest sensational case is. . . . The Legislature is almost schizophrenic [on the issue] at the present time, and I believe the society is."

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