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County targets finding group home runaways

Official concedes that about 10% of children in such homes are missing, often with no one looking for them.

May 21, 2008|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

He was just one of hundreds of children who had gone missing from the Los Angeles County probation system when someone found him hanging from a tree. The coroner said the boy had committed suicide three or four days before anyone noticed his body, within sight of the group home he had fled less than two weeks previously.

The discovery on May 8 triggered a report to the county Board of Supervisors, and Chairman Yvonne B. Burke's staff soon learned that hundreds of youngsters in Probation Department group homes slip away, often without anyone looking for them.

On Tuesday, supervisors called for a report on the department's efforts to find youngsters who run away from its group homes. In a motion passed without comment, the supervisors called the situation "unacceptable."

"Not only are AWOL minors a risk to public safety, but they also pose a safety risk to themselves," the motion said.

Because he was a juvenile, few details were made public about the boy who hanged himself, including his name and age. But county Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor provided the basics of the case to The Times on Tuesday.

The boy's parents had abandoned him years ago, and in an accident involving electricity he lost an eye and an arm. A great-grandmother and foster parents took him in, but he directed so much rage against them that he ended up in the probation system.

County probation workers assigned him to a group home in the San Gabriel Valley. He ran away late last month. The county did not assign anyone to look for him, or for any of the others who have slipped away from group homes for children on probation. Youngsters in group homes are considered among the lowest risk in the system and have not committed the types of more serious offenses as those in the secured facilities.

Taylor acknowledged that about 300 of roughly 3,000 children assigned to group homes are missing, some of them for a long time. Some county supervisors' staff members challenged his numbers, saying the percentage of children missing could be more than one-third.

In an interview, Taylor said budget constraints forced him late last year to reassign four staff members charged with tracking down runaways.

The county department is in the third year of a U.S. Justice Department consent decree that requires improvements in mental health services, hygiene, security and education in the county's three juvenile halls. The department has met, or is close to complying with, more than half the mandated changes, including access to mental health services, reduced use of restraints on youths and better suicide-prevention efforts.

Supervisors have approved millions of dollars in additional department funding for increased staffing and other improvements. But according to federal monitors, "inadequate staffing is, perhaps, the single greatest impediment to providing effective programming at the three juvenile halls."

Taylor said that in recent weeks he has once again assigned staff members to search for runaways.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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