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Agency Role Examined in Child's Care

Los Angeles

Probe is begun into Family Services' work with the family of a 3-month-old who died.

January 07, 2005|Rachana Rathi | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles County inspector general is investigating the Department of Children and Family Services' handling of a case involving a 3-month-old boy and his mother, who had a history of child abuse and was charged this week with her son's death.

Latunga Nate Starks, 32, is accused of putting her son, Michael Kelvin Thompson, inside a washing machine Monday night before setting fire to their South Los Angeles residence. The county coroner has not determined the cause of death.

"I will be looking at the death of the child to determine if systemic changes are necessary to the Department of Children and Family Services," said Michael Watrobski, the county's acting children's services inspector general.

Watrobski, who serves as an independent watchdog for the Board of Supervisors, said his office automatically investigated the deaths of children who have had prior contact with the county's protective services.

"I just want to make sure the department did everything they should have done," Watrobski said. "If not, then maybe we can improve the system to ensure that similar deaths don't happen in the future."

In 1994, Starks was convicted of one count of child abuse and sentenced to eight years in prison. According to court records, she used the burning head of a mop to set her 8-month-old daughter's diaper on fire, as well as the pajamas of a 2-year-old neighbor boy. Both children suffered severe burns, and Starks' daughter was taken from her.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said Thursday that Starks was part of the "Compton Project," a county initiative aimed at keeping families together and keeping children out of foster care. Starks and her child, who was born on Oct. 9, lived with the baby's grandmother, Althea Andrews, at her house on West 109th Street.

Burke said that county social workers called a child safety conference last fall and drew up a family plan in which Andrews had agreed to take care of the infant.

The plan also called for the baby's father, Michael Thompson, to move out and attend domestic violence prevention classes and anger management counseling.

In an earlier interview, Andrews said she never signed any guardianship papers but said that she wanted the child to stay with her. "I didn't want the baby to go to the system," she said.

At some point, however, Burke said that there had been a determination made to remove the child from the house. But she declined to elaborate.

"Obviously something wrong happened here, and they're investigating it to find out what went wrong," she said.

"There were so many different agencies involved in this. The determination had been made that the child should be removed," she said.

Burke has asked representatives from Children and Family Services to address the Board of Supervisors on the case at the panel's meeting on Tuesday.

Starks, who is being held on $1-million bail, is scheduled to appear for a court hearing on Jan. 20.

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Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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