Children who get in trouble with the law in Los Angeles County, in most cases, have already fallen through the cracks before they get tangled up with the justice system, a new report from Cal State Los Angeles has found. The report, due to be released to the public on April 1, recommends earlier intervention and data-sharing among agencies to keep at-risk children out of trouble.
A research team led by Cal State L.A. Associate Professor Denise Herz and sponsored by the Advancement Project, The W.M. Keck Foundation and The California Wellness Foundation, looked at raw data from a host of Los Angeles County agencies serving children.
The report found:
- Just under 20 percent of children had contact with the Department of Children and Family services, and all of them eventually had a substantiated claim of abuse or neglect.
- Over 60 percent of the children had had contact with the Department of Mental Health.
- Almost two thirds of the children had families on public assistance and an immediate family member who was incarcerated.
- And the children, on average, had eight school transfers in their educational career for things such as families moving or disciplinary or behavioral problems.
"There's been a lot of missed opportunities to assure that we really help support them and their families before they ever end up in the juvenile justice system," said Michelle Newell of the Children's Defense Fund, which co-sponsored the report.
Herz said the findings weren't entirely surprising — service providers for years have been sharing stories of youth who end up in multiple county agencies.
"Until you have the data, it's just conversation," she said.
Historically, agencies like the probation department, DCFS, schools, and the Department of Mental Health have not shared data, Herz said. Much of their hesitancy to do so has been over privacy concerns.
"There's an ongoing tension between systems and agencies around the protection of information," Herz said. For example, a child's attorney might not want information about mental health shared openly with other agencies.
Herz said there's a need to find a balance going forward — protecting children's rights while having access to enough information to best help them. There may be youth in the juvenile justice system who are there because of their mental health issues, and they could be better treated in a medical context instead of being punished, Herz said.
"It's like trying to make a decision without part of the story," she said. "When you put the lenses together you start to see a clearer picture."
The report, expected to be released to the public on April 1, is already being shared among county agencies, judges, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.