Boy's Death Prompts Review of Foster Care System

Prompted by the death of an 11-year-old boy found emaciated and malnourished in the closet of an Echo Park home, county supervisors voted Tuesday to re-evaluate an assessment tool designed to identify children at risk of abuse or neglect.

Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended the review, citing evidence suggesting "potential shortcomings in the SDM tool which may provide unclear guidance and the ability to override results."

Structured Decision Making was developed to give social workers "simple, objective and reliable tools" to make the right decisions for children and help managers with planning and resource allocation, according to the Department of Children and Family Services website. However, use of the tool did not save Yonatan Daniel Aguilar, whose mother has been charged with murder and child abuse. Veronica Aguilar, 39, is being held on $2 million bail.

"The question is, where was there a breakdown?" Antonovich asked his colleagues. "We don't want this boy's life to be in vain.' Yonatan's 34-pound body was found on Aug. 22, wrapped in a blanket inside a closet, by his stepfather.

Jose Pinzon called 911 and said his wife had told him her son was dead. The boy died due to neglect and showed severe signs of malnutrition, according to prosecutors. However, the autopsy report was placed on a law enforcement security hold and the coroner has not disclosed a cause of death. Records provided to the Los Angeles Times by DCFS show that Yonatan's risk of abuse at home had been marked as "high" four times from 2009 to 2012 by DCFS workers using the SDM.

That should have triggered additional investigation, but case workers chose not to pursue what they viewed as unfounded allegations, according to Kathy Park, CEO of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, who defended the SDM to the board. The SDM model was developed by NCCD. Teachers and others reported the family to DCFS at least six times dating back to 2002, before Yonatan was born. But the boy was never removed from his home and stopped attending school in 2012, police told The Times.

"It was reported to DCFS that the child had gone to Mexico," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said, questioning whether any diagnostic tool could have made a difference. "Our investigations are triggered by someone reporting."

Office of Child Protection Director Michael Nash agreed, saying, "I'm not sure that it's necessarily a case where the (decision-making tool) is called into question."

And it is a social worker's qualitative judgment about a child's safety, not the quantitative risk tool, that determines whether a case is opened, DCFS spokesman Armand Montiel told City News Service.

"It's not about probability or norms" derived from answering the risk tool's multiple choice questions, Montiel said, but about talking to the child and interviewing parents, teachers and others familiar with the child's care.

A preliminary investigation into the reports of abuse or neglect concerning Yonatan's family seemed to show that the social workers involved "did the right job," Montiel said. "(They) interviewed Yonatan independently ... and spoke to teachers" and several other people who had contact with the family, he said.

The family was already connected to some social services and it was "consistent and clear that the professionals (in Yonatan's life) believed that he was well cared for," Montiel said. If there were signs of abuse or neglect, "apparently nobody saw it," he said. As the investigation continues, "the real mystery is what happened in those intervening years," Montiel said.

Supervisor Hilda Solis, who was moved to tears by the case, questioned why social workers didn't remain in contact with the family even after the boy allegedly left the country. "There were other children in the house. What happened to them?' Solis asked.

Montiel said the court ruling ordering the department to release records about Yonatan barred discussion of any other children involved. As for quantifying risk, the county has been experimenting since sometime in 2014 with an alternative tool dubbed Project AURA, Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment.

AURA mines predictive data from criminal and social welfare databases to develop probabilities of risk. While DCFS says no tool can replace the critical skills, training and judgment of social workers, the board directed the office of Children Protection and DCFS to report back on the strength and weaknesses of both the SDM and AURA in 60 days.

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