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Killings by Parents on Decline, County Says

Violence: Deaths drop to 35 in 2000. Study says better reporting of abuse is preventing slayings.

April 17, 2002|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reported killings of children by their parents in Los Angeles County declined to their lowest number in more than a decade, an encouraging sign that the general public is more vigilant about reporting possible abuse cases before they turn fatal, says an annual report being released today.

Thirty-five children were killed by their parents or caretakers in 2000, the last year for which full statistics were available, down from 44 the year before, according to the county's Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. The 2000 child homicide figure, which covers youngsters under 18 years old, is the lowest since the group began charting such deaths in 1989.

"It's really good news and we haven't had that in quite some time," said the agency's executive director, Deanne Tilton-Durfee. "The violent deaths of 35 young children is still too many. But by virtue of taking the mask off this issue, we have seen a much greater willingness on the part of friends, family and neighbors to become involved."

Even more promising are preliminary data from 2001 indicating a continued downward trend for such child homicides, which had averaged in the mid-40s for several years, Tilton-Durfee said.

The findings, based on statistics gathered by child abuse experts, law enforcement and social welfare agencies, provide a detailed analysis of slayings by caregivers, accidental deaths, youth suicides and abuse reports.

Though overall reports of child abuse were up slightly--to 151,108 from 146,583 the previous year--they remained far below 1997's high of nearly 200,000 cases.

Accidental deaths of children also rose slightly, to 137 from 134 in 1999. But the increase was attributed in part to a widening of the age range for that category. The cases included children through age 14 rather than through age 12 as in previous years. The 13- and 14-year-olds accounted for 15 accidental deaths.

Of the accidental deaths reported in 2000, 30 involved pedestrians hit by automobiles, one fewer than in 1999. Authorities believe that many of those deaths could have been prevented.

In several cases, unattended children in driveways were run over, most often by their own relatives.

In another case, a 9-year-old boy in foster care ran away from his group home with two other youths, bolted onto the freeway and was struck by an oncoming car.

Suicides declined 15%, to 23 from 27 the previous year. No children 12 or under committed suicide, unlike in 1999, when a 10-year-old and two 12-year-olds ended their own lives.

But homicides by caregivers remain some of the most perplexing of crimes for investigators and society.

"The majority of children killed are infants under 12 months of age, the most vulnerable of humanity and virtually powerless to give voice to any sort of assault that may occur," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, chairman of the council.

In Los Angeles County and across the nation, a girl is most at risk of fatal injury or homicide by a parent or caretaker during her first year of life. For boys, the risk is high in the first year and again in their late teens.

But infants are also the least likely to come in contact with welfare authorities who could protect them. Only 12% of abuse cases reported to the county's Department of Children and Family Services involved children under 2 years of age, and 23% involved children under 5, according to the report.

More family members, friends and others are noticing warning signs of abuse and reporting them, Tilton-Durfee said.

Their awareness, in part, has been fueled by campaigns such as those by the Proposition 10-funded California Children and Families Commission to promote healthy babies and intervene in families in which domestic violence or substance abuse puts children at risk of harm.

U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft recently announced a national campaign to reduce child abuse deaths by 12% in the next eight years.

In 20 of the 35 homicides reported in 2000, there had been no previous contact with child welfare authorities.

One means of averting such tragedies, the report says, is increased cross-reporting of abuse and family crime among police and child protection agencies.

For the first time, the Los Angeles city attorney's office--which prosecutes misdemeanor abuse cases--has begun receiving abuse reports directly from child welfare authorities.

"Our hope is to try to catch kids who might have fallen through the cracks," said Donna Edmiston, special assistant for children, families and school issues.

"We're looking not only to protect children but prosecute abusers."

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