By RICHARD WINTON STAFF WRITER
A proposal by the Los Angeles County sheriff to have deputies check on children considered at risk of abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic was rejected after the county’s director of child protective services said the action might do more harm than good.
The threat of the novel coronavirus has shut schools, curtailed medical visits and largely hidden the lives of children behind closed doors, leaving mandated reporters such as teachers, doctors, counselors and coaches little opportunity to observe and report the signs of suspected abuse. Such reports have dropped by as much as 50% in L.A. County, according to child protective services.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva last month announced a plan “to do welfare checks on our most at-risk kids with patrol personnel,” working in conjunction with the Department of Children and Family Services and other stakeholders to identify high-risk minors who had not had contact with their schools.
Villanueva said he did “not want another Gabriel Fernandez or another Anthony Avalos,” referring to two Antelope Valley boys who were killed after repeated incidents of abuse at home.
But after several weeks of discussions, the DCFS aid it would not participate. A member of the Board of Supervisors, Sheila Kuehl, also voiced opposition to using deputies in such a function.
The move comes against a backdrop of growing hostility between the supervisors and Villanueva over his powers, his budget and oversight of his department that has seen him stripped of control of county emergency management.
County officials, however, said their opposition focused on the best interests of children and concerns that the plan would be seen as targeting minority and disadvantaged communities. The proposal had also drawn scrutiny from some children’s advocates.
Bobby D. Cagle, head of the DCFS, said in a statement to the Times that the agency had initial discussions with the Sheriff’s Department about “potential joint temporary efforts” to offset the significant drop in reporting of child abuse.
“In the end, DCFS decided that sending a uniformed law enforcement officer to a family’s home without any articulable suspicion of child abuse or neglect would not necessarily improve safety for children,” Cagle said. “To the contrary, such an action might increase stress on families and children, especially those in already marginalized communities, during one of the most stressful times most have ever experienced.”