A new law aimed at exposing child deaths to public scrutiny has given Californians their most complete view yet of the toll of abuse and neglect but falls short of legislators' intent and leaves many fatalities uncounted, according to interviews and The Times' review of previously confidential records.
Known as Senate Bill 39, the 2008 law was largely intended to highlight systemic flaws in hopes of preventing other children's deaths. More than a year after it took effect, however, it has shed limited light on how -- and how many -- children die of abuse and neglect.
"We do not know how many children have died in California," said William L. Grimm, senior attorney for the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, one of SB 39's backers. "We did not know five years ago, and we don't know today."
The problem, in part, is that counties interpret the law's requirements differently. Their views vary on what constitutes abuse or neglect and on what information is subject to disclosure. And in at least one county, Los Angeles, deaths appear to have been mistakenly overlooked.
The Times early this year filed public records requests with all 58 counties, and they in turn reported a total of 109 child deaths in 2008 caused by abuse or neglect. Some pending cases were later substantiated, bringing the statewide total to 114, according to records obtained from the state Department of Social Services.
Los Angeles County, by far the largest with more than 10 million residents, reported 32 such deaths, but some other large counties noted far fewer. For instance, Alameda County, the state's seventh-largest with a population of 1.5 million, reported one: an 18-month-old Hayward boy fatally scalded in a bathtub; his mother's boyfriend has been charged.
Twenty-eight other counties -- nearly half -- reported no deaths from abuse or neglect.
One of the law's sponsors, Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), said it has brought greater transparency to the child-welfare system, but she lamented that there still is a "lack of uniformity" in how the counties have responded.
"Counties need to be given a clear and concise directive," she said. "Until we can say we have done everything possible to save every child from injury or tragic death, we have more work to do."
Beaten, shaken, shot or simply allowed to starve, scores of California children die each year from abuse and neglect. Until last year, virtually all information about these deaths was kept from public view, ostensibly to protect the privacy of children and their families.
But that secrecy also shielded child welfare officials and their sometimes lethal mistakes from public scrutiny, children's advocates argued. At their urging, state lawmakers mandated the release of previously sealed records, including those detailing dead children's prior contacts with child welfare agencies.
The results have shed some light on the problem -- showing, for instance, that 14 deaths occurred last year among children whose families had been at one time investigated by Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services.
It is impossible to know how many deaths were not counted that should have been. But in its review, The Times found some clear instances of underreporting. The Los Angeles County children's services department, for example, said in August that it had recorded four child deaths this year that resulted from abuse or neglect. Internal records obtained by The Times showed there actually had been nine.
Among those the county had not disclosed as abuse and neglect were the deaths of a 10-year-old boy killed in a June traffic accident when he and two siblings were thrown from a van that had no rear seats and that of a 3-month old boy who died in a motel room where his parents left him alone for 12 hours.
When a reporter raised the discrepancy with the department, Director Trish Ploehn acknowledged the additional deaths and pledged to institute "internal controls" to avoid such oversights.
Grimm, of the Oakland-based youth law center, which has collected death records from the 15 largest counties, said the totals fall short of what he would have expected.
"Our own experience making requests in counties across the state so far suggests that we are not getting a complete picture of the children who have died as the result of abuse or neglect," Grimm said.
Gail Steele, an Alameda County supervisor who has pushed for full disclosure of child deaths, said she thinks many abuse and neglect fatalities are not reported. Her office tracks all children's deaths in that county and reviews coroner's files to make its own assessments.
"My thing is you can't figure out how to prevent deaths or fix things if you don't know what happened," she said.
Often the problem is varying interpretations of what constitutes abuse and neglect.