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The death of an 11-year-old sparks questions about LA county child welfare system

An 11-year-old was found dead in Echo Park earlier this week.
An 11-year-old was found dead in Echo Park earlier this week.
Kent MacElwee via Flickr Creative Commons

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To begin the show, we take a look at child protection in Los Angeles County. An 11-year-old boy died Monday in Echo Park. His mother, Veronica Aguilar, was charged yesterday with murder and child abuse, resulting in death.

Police say there had been previous reports of abuse in the family. The tragedy has raised fresh questions about LA's systems designed to detect and prevent child abuse. 

For more, Southern California Public Radio's Rina Palta joins us to discuss those issues.

Catch us up on the latest in this case - what do we know?

"Well, we know that the boy, Yonatan Aguilar, was found dead in a closet after his step-father reported his death to police. The mother has now been charged with murder as you said, a prosecutor has filed court documents, yesterday afternoon saying that the boy showed signs of abuse and severe malnutrition, when they found him. The siblings, he had older siblings, have been taken into child protective custody. The department of children and family services, our child welfare agency here, won't comment on what contact, if any, the family had with the system but police have said that previous reports of abuse were made."

This is not the first time we've seen a child die in this kind of circumstance. Just a few years ago, Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy, was killed by his mother and her boyfriend. And that was after repeated reports were made to authorities that the boy was being abused. What changes have been made since?

"Yeah, that was a really sad case as well. That was up in Palmdale and Gabriel's death actually did spark a lot of outrage in the county and brought massive changes to how they oversee the child welfare protection system in Los Angeles county. You know, there was really an overhaul, the board of supervisors got involved, they created this new office of child protection to basically coordinate all the different agencies, police, mental health, everything that deals with children and the county to see if they could coordinate and try to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future. They hired former child judge Michael Nash to lead the office. He's been a reformer and an advocate for children for a long time and they put together a massive list of changes they wanted to see. So we're starting to see some of those come to fruition now."

And just this year, the social workers involved in that case were prosecuted - what's the situation there? 

"That's an incredibly rare move and the DA did decide that this case warranted actual criminal charges. They've charged the social workers involved for allegedly filing false reports and basically child abuse saying that they could've prevented this from happening and they didn't. They've plead not guilty, they have a court date next month coming, and as you probably know, the mother and the boyfriend in that case, have also been charged with homicide, they have a court date in January."

The death of another child does raise questions in my mind - and I imagine in others - about whether they've made any progress....

"I think that's what everyone's asking this week. Have we made any progress since Gabriel Fernandez's death? It's hard to draw conclusions from what's happening from one case like this. You know, DCFS isn't commenting on this case but I'm guessing if they did, they would just point out how rare it is to see a child end up in these circumstances, you know there's tens of thousands of children who come into contact with the child welfare system every year. Deaths are very rare of children, any death is of course too common but they are fairly rare and it's not always children who had contact with the child welfare system."

How rare – do you have any stats on this?

"Well, the last comprehensive report we have on this issue is from 2014. There were 15 homicides of children in LA county by a parent or caregiver, which could mean a babysitter or something. That's pretty consistent over the past few years, but way down from the early 2000's when you used to see way more of these tragedies. There are patterns in these cases, they're much younger children, zero to five is at much higher risk. A lot of the times, parents did have contact with the child welfare system, either as parents or when they were minors themselves. They could've been subjects of abuse, domestic violence is common, substance abuse is common. Since these are fairly rare, it's kind of hard to draw conclusions from these outlier cases and see if they do point to blindspots in the system basically."

Now that the boy's mom has been charged - what's next in a case like this? 

She's going to be due for arraignment to plea guilty or not guilty in a couple weeks, but as the court case continues, we'll obviously find out a lot more about what was happening behind the scenes in this house.

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.