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Why do the children keep dying?

Kids under county supervision are killed, attention is paid, then everyone moves on. The latest stories revive the pain for a woman whose grandson died 14 years ago.

October 16, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Gail Helms told me how she happened on the pictures and the headline on the front page of Sunday's Times: "Flawed County System Lets Children Die Invisibly."

The tears came to her eyes. She put the paper aside for a while.

Reading about two teenagers dying in foster care would be painful for anyone, but doubly so for Helms. The stories served up another reminder of the anger and despair she felt 14 years ago, when her grandson Lance was beaten to death after a judge returned the boy to his violent, drug-plagued father.

"These cases are so difficult," Helms, 66, said quietly, on the phone from her home in Hemet. "You can't help but think: Has anything changed? Has anything changed?"

It's trite and inadequate to say all of us have failed, but I'm going to say it anyway because I think it's true.

The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services needs to do more to keep better tabs on children. The county supervisors who oversee the agency need to do a lot of things better -- starting with breaking the years-long logjam that has kept county departments from sharing information about children at risk. And the media, including The Times, need to more consistently pursue an issue that won't go away any time soon.

I've had a particular interest in the issue since I met Gail Helms in the dark days after 2 1/2 -year-old Lance's death in North Hollywood.

Little I've written in nearly 30 years of newspapering has generated as much response as that 1995 story. A picture of the adorable, sandy-haired toddler appeared on Page 1, along with the description of how he'd been hit so hard his internal organs burst.

The phone calls and mail arrived in waves. Eventually, the state Legislature passed reforms.

It all seemed so important then. It all seems so inadequate now.

My article touched only one of the system's horrific failures, but barely hinted at how kids fall into danger and, more important, what helps keep them safe.

I like to think I got to some of those deeper issues as I wrote about foster care over the next couple of years. But the problems seemed so big -- an army of incompetent parents overwhelming a small rank of protectors -- it was hard not to get depressed.

Every few years, The Times would go full throttle after another child death or mount a series of stories, but then move on to other things.

"On the general topic of staying on a subject year after year, I think that's fair criticism on a lot of subjects," said David Lauter, the Times' assistant managing editor who oversees local coverage. "News organizations have a tendency to focus attention on a subject for a while, then move on to the next subject. That's not always a bad thing, but it does work against consistency."

I could see how the paper would focus its attention elsewhere. There are so many other subjects, people and places in the county that cry out for coverage. Even one activist who has dedicated much of her life to child welfare issues told me confidentially: "You get to a point that your eyes glaze over and you move on."

Still, if abused and neglected children don't fall under the old journalism admonition -- comfort the afflicted -- then who does?

Since taking over local coverage more than a year ago, Lauter said, he has asked his reporters for more coverage. And my colleague Garrett Therolf has joined the battle. He's detailed children's deaths, ridden along with a social worker, raised the question of how a county supervisor could be "shocked" at the number of fatalities, when the lawmakers receive regular reports of same and noted how Los Angeles' many bureaucracies have failed, repeatedly, to figure out a way to share information about endangered kids.

Therolf and veteran investigative reporter Kim Christensen wrote the Sunday pieces about Miguel Padilla and Lazhanae Harris that had Gail Helms near tears.

The stories raised questions about county oversight but also suggested a long-running dilemma of a system "in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can't or won't care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better -- and are sometimes worse."

What hasn't changed since I left the child welfare beat?

* The need to provide as many services as possible -- drug rehab, parenting classes, day care and the like -- to troubled families to help them keep children at home. It's tempting to want to wish a pox on deadbeat parents, but evidence shows it's cheaper, and works better, to give them a hand. The alternative often is the long-term costs and abysmal outcomes that come with foster homes and, often, the probation camps and prisons that follow.

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