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Child Abuse Reports Rise 20% at Agency

November 18, 1997|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

The director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services said the agency on Monday logged a stunning 20% increase in reports of child abuse, and he urged the public to make even greater efforts to help youngsters suffering from parental drug abuse.

"We need a well-informed community that aggressively reports abuse and neglect--especially teachers, law enforcement, health professionals and neighbors," said children's services chief Peter Digre. "I know it's a cliche, but it does take a whole community sensitive to the needs of the child, with the willingness to step forward and involve us when necessary."

Nationwide, he said, only one in four cases of child abuse and neglect is reported to government agencies.

Digre's call for more public involvement came in response to a two-part Times series, Orphans of Addiction, which chronicled the painful plight of children living in homes with parents who abuse drugs and alcohol.

The newspaper's stories, Digre said, "will forever alter the landscape of how people see these children who are abused and neglected. People don't understand the enormous and devastating trauma of all of this on kids."

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In addition to the increase in people reporting possible abuse, numerous others called with offers of money, food and clothes for children living in such harsh conditions.

After The Times' series, published Sunday and Monday, the children's services department responded quickly, dispatching social workers to track down each child mentioned. As a result, 3-year-old Tamika Triggs was promptly found and removed from her mother, a heroin addict.

On Monday, she was reported to be "safe and sound" in a foster home, said children's services spokesman Schuyler Sprowles.

A court hearing on her fate is scheduled for Wednesday, at which time her mother, Theodora Triggs, 34, can argue whether the girl should remain with her.

Meanwhile, it was unclear late Monday whether two other youngsters highlighted in the newspaper's report--Ashley and Kevin Bryan--would be taken from their father, who routinely neglected them while drinking and using drugs with other addicts in their one-bedroom Long Beach apartment.

Los Angeles County officials have transferred the case to Kern County, where the children have been living for several months with their father, Calvin Holloman, and his girlfriend, Rita Green, who has used drugs but says she is not addicted.

The assistant director of Kern County's department of human services, Kathy Irvine, refused to comment on the investigation, other than to say: "Reading the paper, we became very concerned about these families."

Green insisted in a telephone interview Monday that the children are faring better since their move to the small town of Weldon near Lake Isabella.

She conceded that the abuse the children suffered while living in Long Beach--a period documented by The Times--"created a lot of mental problems for them."

But she said both children are now are eating regularly and attending school and that their father has stopped shooting speed, although "he does have a beer every once in a while." She said he is not in a treatment program. When asked to put Holloman on the phone, Green said he was sick with a cold.

The first signs that a child may be in trouble surface in the classroom.

A special Los Angeles Unified School District task force over the summer recommended that professionals, such as psychiatric social workers, be added to elementary schools around the district to help teachers determine when child protection advocates should be called.

"The problem," according to Hector Madrigal, the district's director of pupil services, "is there's a lot of youngsters that exhibit serious behavior and home environment problems. Though a teacher sees the indicators [of drug abuse in the home], there's no one there to investigate, and they can't just jump to conclusions."

School board member David Tokofsky, who heads the board's health and human services committee, said the proposal has become snarled in board and district politics, in part because it represents a shift in intervention emphasis from the middle school and high school level down to the elementary school level.

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Meanwhile, Digre of children's services said his agency also has been studying new ways to help endangered children. Among other things, he said he has been working hard to heighten public confidence so people will be more inclined to report abusive or neglectful parents, knowing that children will be placed in safe environments.

Among other things, Digre said his agency is trying to better monitor foster care homes and will use a measure being signed into law today by President Clinton to speed adoption.

In 1996, Digre said, the department found adoptive parents for 1,270 children, and he hopes to increase that to 2,000 children by year's end. The goal for 1998, he said, is 3,000.

Digre said he also plans to use two new California laws allowing his department to provide more therapy for foster care children.

"Kids have been in these horribly neglectful situations and have suffered a lot of trauma," Digre said. "That trauma must be addressed."

Times education writer Amy Pyle contributed to this report.

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