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Where Was Child Services?

January 24, 2003

By the time he was shot to death last week, caught in a gun battle outside his home, Horace Ray Ferguson Jr.'s tough life was already etched deep into the 7-year-old's face. See that nasty scar streaking through one eyebrow and another that catches the light on his forehead?

The photo doesn't show his mother's crack addiction, which the boy's grandmother said caused the learning problems that forced Ray Ray, as he was known to his family, to repeat first grade. It doesn't expose the tumult in his household in Compton, where 11 members of the extended family shared two small adjoining houses. Sheriff's deputies were at the door often, responding to neighbors' calls about domestic disturbances and drug sales. It doesn't show how stretched Ray Ray's 74-year-old grandmother, his legal guardian, must have felt in caring for the boy along with five other children. Or Ray Ray's fear and sorrow after two teenagers in the house were shot dead in recent weeks.

Ray Ray was a lot like thousands of children who end up on the doorstep of the Department of Children and Family Services when their parents can't or won't care for them. His parents and other family members should have done far more to protect and care for the child and to clean up their own lives. But Ray Ray's short, difficult life and his violent death raise hard questions for the children's services agency.

Records show that sheriff's deputies rolled up to the residence 27 times in the last two years, making an arrest on at least one occasion. Law enforcement sources said the houses harbored gang members, a charge that Ray Ray's grandmother denied.

Did deputies report to the foster agency on these frequent visits? If they did, why did social workers leave Ray Ray in an environment that seemed dangerous on its face, especially in light of the two recent killings? If agency workers didn't know what was happening at this home, why not?

Child welfare experts agree that children who can't live with their parents usually do better with relatives than with strangers. Should this mean it's all right for social workers to ignore violence in such cases?

For lack of willing foster parents in some urban neighborhoods, children's services often must turn to overburdened seniors like Ray Ray's grandmother. Yet, what is the agency doing to expand the number of foster families in communities like Compton?

On Thursday the Department of Children and Family Services removed two children from the house and placed them with an aunt, according to the Sheriff's Department. That does not eliminate the questions in this case, which continue to ricochet like the bullets that trapped a child.

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