Study: Cases in Kern are double the rate for rest of California

Date: 2003-09-28

Bakersfield Californian, The (CA)
Author: SHELLIE BRANCO Californian staff writer

Six years ago this community was shocked by a rash of violent deaths of children at the hands of those entrusted with their care.

Nine children were killed between 1995 and 1997.

The Californian investigated and wrote extensively about the tragic deaths. There were calls for justice. The state audited the local Child Protective Services agency. Recommendations were made.

Most of the recommendations from that 1998 audit were incorporated by CPS.

But whether the situation has improved depends on how you view it.

On the grim side, Kern County leads the state in child abuse rates -- double that of California overall, according to a 2002 report by the UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research, which reviewed data supplied by the state Department of Human Services.

That could be, however, a function of better reporting, some experts say.

Still, problems at the local CPS have not been entirely cleared up. In April, a grand jury report was critical of CPS, saying social workers' caseloads were still "well above" state standards.

Then five months ago a disturbingly familiar pattern of child deaths began again:

* Two-month-old Katelynn Gonzalez died May 6, her skull shattered by her mother's boyfriend. Kyle Lawson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Aug. 26.

* Demarjay Crooks, only 45 days old, died July 27 of blunt force trauma. Her mother was arrested in connection with the death.

* Raymonte Bailey, 22 months, died Aug. 4 from internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma to his abdomen, an autopsy showed. Coyetta Cooper, 38, his caretaker, was arrested on charges of murder and child abuse.

That's three abuse-related deaths in five months. Comparatively, five children died in abuse cases during all of 2001 and three in 2002.

If the rate of the past four months were to continue, it would quickly outstrip the nine deaths experienced between 1995 and 1997.

And now, another child death has been reported.

Three-month-old Angelic Clary was found dead Sept. 14 at the residence of her foster mother Sabrina Stafford after a 911 call brought paramedics to the home. Stafford was arrested the next day but released Sept. 18, and the district attorney's office has asked the police department for more evidence. Officers are now waiting for toxicology reports, which may be available at the end of next week.

Angelic's twin sister, who also was in Stafford's care, was taken into protective custody, having been found hungry and dehydrated.

Authorities charged with protecting children say they're doing everything they can, but Kern's poverty, drug-abuse problem and rising population, combined with better reporting, make child-abuse case increases -- and in some cases deaths -- unavoidable.

Holding back the tide

For Jan Sublett, executive director of Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, prevention is the best answer to child abuse. But some believe there's not much that can be done to help adults already stuck in a cycle of drug use and violence, arguing that the focus needs to be on educating younger generations about abuse, Sublett said.

Last year, Kern County saw approximately 24 substantiated cases of child abuse per 1,000 children, according to the UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research.

That was nearly double the instance of abuse in Fresno County, which has a larger child population. It was even double that of Los Angeles County.

When asked why the number of abuse cases aren't declining, agencies and organizations are more often quick to point more to funding problems and socioeconomic factors than problems with their own efforts.

Child abuse is a community issue, they say, and it's unfair to pin blame on agencies and law enforcement.

"I think it's part of the piece, but it isn't productive to boil it down to programs," said Steve Sanders, executive director of Kern County Network for Children. "The ultimate question is talking to abusers. That's where the responsibility lies. The person that abuses a child is ultimately responsible."

Despite the statistics showing a sharp rise in reported child abuse, agencies and organizations that investigate these cases say they haven't seen a dramatic increase in numbers of children being abused.

Most attribute the rise in part to an increasing child population. Kern County's child populationrose about 11,000 children to 218,048 from 1998 to 2002,according to the UC Berkeley report.

And officials say that Kern County's high poverty and unemployment rates and drug and alcohol use foster an environment for child abuse.

"Unless we're gonna put an agency worker in home 24 hours a day, you can't stop abuse," Sanders said.

Prevention dollars drying up

Traditionally, the government puts more money into programs that help the abused after they've been victimized, officials say.

Sublett calls it the Band-Aid approach: trying to heal the wounded after they've been hurt.

"I can get more government grants to serve battered women after they're beaten than to go to schools" to teach prevention, she said. "To stop domestic violence and child abuse, we have to work with younger individuals so they can go on to partner with healthy individuals."

But money is disappearing for programs and there are not enough resources to go around, Sanders said.

CPS hasn't seen any new money in Kern County for child-abuse prevention because the state budget has been so bad in past years, said Barbara Zimmermann, Department of Human Services executive coordinator.

CPS officials said the department's child-abuse prevention funds are passed to the Kern County Network for Children. That organization's funding for programs with a primary focus on abuse prevention rose more than $100,000 between 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Meanwhile, the "services" budget for CPS, which funds such programs as emergency response and family maintenance, dropped from $32.3 million in 2001-02 to $30.8 million in 2002-03. That was after the budget rose about $8 million from 1998-99 to 2001-02.

Kern County officials have hung their hats on prevention programs as a way of cutting down on the number of children who suffer abuse.

But exactly how successful they are remains unclear. And it is hard to track how much money is put into prevention, as opposed to investigating actual abuse complaints.

The prevention programs in place cut across a broad spectrum of society, although the definition of a "prevention" program is somewhat vague.

Aside from parenting classes and any service provided by CPS, authorities count the Boys and Girls Club as a prevention program, as well as job-training programs like Welfare to Work.

Prevention programs work and "money spent up front is gonna save you money down the road," said Karen Cooley, executive director of the Kern Child Abuse Prevention Council and Haven Counseling Center.

Dollars for primary prevention, or community programs aimed at educating and helping families before abuse starts, are often first to go, she added. Programs to help those already abused are given priority.

"We've definitely experienced cuts in funding, sometimes a whole program or part of a program," Cooley said. "You continue to do primary prevention, but families in direct need are screaming."

In the trenches

In July, 13-year Kern County CPS veteran Wanda Wallace had 24 cases pending. Because cases in her division, emergency response, are counted by the family, that number is deceiving. She was actually serving a total of 58 children.

And that was a low, Wallace said.

She had a backlog of 16 cases that were not closed within the department's 30-day deadline. She deals with an average of a little more than 21 referrals per month.

Such heavy backlogs hamper her efforts at closer monitoring.

"I want to get out to homes and see the kids," Wallace said.

Even so, her overall caseload is down from before the 1998 state audit.

In 1997, Wallace handled more than 30 cases a month. Since the audit, that number has been reduced to 25.

Despite the fluctuations, her workload remains well above the state-recommended level of 11 children per worker, Wallace said.

Job stress

And the strain on social workers hasn't improved.

Wallace said that after a public awareness campaign, calls to CPS -- and her caseload -- increased.

She's noticed that the department has had trouble retaining workers, some of whom are just out of college, especially because of job stress.

Seasoned workers like her are generally assigned to emergency response, court intake or family maintenance.

Wallace said she handles some cases of physical abuse and has placed children in custody, but most referrals involve general neglect stemming from substance abuse by parents.

"Some cases just get to you," Wallace said. "I recall one case, a family of five or six, there was no furniture in the home, no food, there was trash in the home. The kids were taking a water hose and spraying it in the home because they were not being supervised."

But within a month or year, drug abuse may turn a general neglect referral into a physical or sexual abuse referral, she added.

Success and pain

Case worker Monica Fitzgerald has been on the job for a year.

She has seen pain and she has seen success. Sometimes both are mixed.

Since she returned 2-year-old David Olsen to his mother, the toddler cries whenever Fitzgerald makes family maintenance visits to his home.

The boy's mother, Brenda Olsen-Bennett, said her son was taken from her over a family dispute, but didn't want to discuss details.

"I'd left him with a friend of the family," she said. "They said I abandoned him."

Olsen-Bennett took the necessary court-ordered parenting classes in order to get her son back. She even finished them early, Fitzgerald said.

When Fitzgerald made a follow-up family visit recently, David sat on his mother's lap and hid his face behind a pillow.

"He gets thinking I'm coming to pick him up," Fitzgerald said. "Before, he would hug me. He would want to give me a kiss on my cheek.

"It really hurts to see someone so affected by it," she added. "But it's nice to see he loves his mom so much."

Olsen-Bennett said CPS social workers seem overworked, but they do spend time with families and individualize each case.

As she played with her son, she said the whole experience was a nightmare.

"You know, when you have someone and they're not there anymore, it's hard," she said.

She added that Fitzgerald was a great help throughout the experience.

Fitzgerald says she becomes attached to all of the children she visits and it's hard not to think about her cases at home, where she is raising a daughter of her own.

"I feel like I have 40 other kids," she said. "As a parent, I can understand the pain some of the parents go through. We have some parents who don't want to see their kids. That hurts."

Caption:
HENRY A. BARRIOS / THE CALIFORNIAN
Brenda Olsen-Bennett shares a quiet moment with her son, David Olsen. Olsen-Bennett is happy to have her son back with her.
Child Protective Service worker Monica Fitzgerald visits Brenda Olsen-Bennett at her home.

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