The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating the death of healthy, almost-three-year-old Damien Ventura on July 3 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The child’s death occurred one month before out State Sen. Ricardo Lara ordered a review by the California State Auditor of child safety protections, especially for LGBT youth, at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
Until recently, Ventura’s death had not been reported in the news as had the horrific death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos on June 21 and the 2014 murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez from Palmdale, both of whom prosecutors believed were murdered by family members because they were thought to be gay. Lara and two Republican colleagues, Sen. Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita), and Assemblymember Tom Lackey of Palmdale) ordered the state audit on Aug. 8 after reports indicated that DCFS received at least 13 calls since 2013 from school administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others specifically alleging that Avalos was the victim of abuse.
While two-year-old Damien Ventura’s story is not specifically gay-related, DCFS has developed a good working relationship with RaiseAChild, an organization that helps LGBT people foster and adopt children. DCFS features an African-American lesbian couple on its website and in a video to encourage LGBT adoption.
However, almost in Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde fashion, DCFS seems to have both the sunny-good deeds side and its opposite, with individual social workers who, for whatever reason, fail to protect children suspected of being at-risk.
“All of us at DCFS are deeply saddened by Damien’s death. The death of any child in our community is tragic and heartbreaking. We are cooperating with the Los Angeles Police Department in their ongoing investigation and are conducting our own internal examination of Damien’s case seeking to answer critical questions around what happened,” Bobby Cagle, director of Children and Family Services, said in an Aug. 20 statement to the Los Angeles Blade. Additionally, the coroner has not yet disclosed the cause of death.
But an Aug. 19 Los Angeles Times story about Damien’s death is revealing. DCFS was “contacted twice about Damien in January but found insufficient risk to take urgent action,” according to “heavily redacted case records released by DCFS.” The documents show that a mandated reporter who is required by law to report suspected child abuse, “called the child protection hotline about Damien on Jan. 19,” The Times reports.
A DCFS social worker “designated the matter for response within five days, rather than immediately or within three days, the records show.” But three days later, on Jan. 22, a mandated reporter said law enforcement had been asked to do a home-check at Damien’s mother’s home. The referral report said the referral “was marked as ‘evaluated out,’ which means that it did not proceed, either because the allegation, if true, would not rise to the level of child abuse or because it was a duplicate.”
A redacted LAPD report indicates that two officers went to the house on Jan. 22 “to assist with investigation and to check on the welfare of the minor.” The Times reports: “A medical report from that day included in the case file described the findings of an examination of suspected child physical abuse and neglect. Some results were marked as ‘within normal limits,’ but others describing the condition of his skin, head, eyes, ears, back, buttocks and extremities were redacted.”
A social worker conducted both a “safety assessment” and “risk assessment” and concluded “that there were no children ‘likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm,’ the case record shows,” assessing the risk as “moderate” despite also noting drug use and an arrest record by a primary or secondary caregiver. “The recommendation was ‘do not promote’ to a case, according to the assessment.
Police declined to comment on the case other than to say it is an ongoing investigation,” The Times reported.
DCFS has placed Damien’s social worker on desk duty.
DCFS presented the results of their own internal investigation into Anthony Avalos’ death at the LA County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 14 and concluded that the agency was not to blame. They also indicated they are cooperating in all investigations.
The state audit request letter from Lara and his colleagues asks the auditor “to identify any breakdown in processes and recommend systemic solutions that would improve child safety.” The auditor will review whether safety, risk and reunification assessments are timely and accurate, including background checks on all individuals in a home who have access to a child; whether child abuse and neglect investigations are timely and thorough; whether DCFS performs regular and thorough wellness checks on children in its care; whether DCFS is transforming its practices and processes in response to deaths of children for whom it had responsibility or previous contact; and what are the root causes of any deficiencies.
Like other groups and communities working closely with LA County to help protect at-risk children and provide loving foster and adoptive homes, the LGBT community has a right to know why DSCF has failed to prevent the deaths of children for whom they are responsible.