coronavirus

Caseworkers Fear Children Will Continue to Suffer Unseen in Pandemic

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Seven years ago this week the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez put a spotlight on weaknesses within Los Angeles' child welfare system.

Now social workers fear more abused children will continue to suffer unseen because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NBCLA I-Team took to the streets with Sylvia Lopez, an emergency social worker, before her regular 4 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. shift at an emergency response command post to see what is and is not being done to protect the children.

Her job is to investigate child abuse referrals outside the LAPD's Newton station where she recently met a teenager suspected of being sexually abused.

Calls to the LA County child protection hotline have dropped dramatically, from more than 18000 calls in February to just over 10,000 in April. In Lopez's world that's not good news.

The dire reality has led to this new public service announcement by the county's Department of Children and Family Services.

The pandemic adds to the challenges facing an agency audited by the state last year that found, "The department unnecessarily risks the health and safety of the children in its care."

The agency was tasked to make changes following the deaths of several children such as training social workers on the use of a computerized tool that evaluates whether a child can remain safely at home.

"Unfortunately the commencement of that was right on the cusp of the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis," said the agency's chief Bobby Cagle.

Cagle says evaluation teams created after 4-year-old Noah Cuatro died last summer are randomly reviewing cases.

"Certainly if they identify a case where there is a need, we get somebody out immediately," he said.

Added LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva: "I don't want another Gabriel Fernandez out there. I don't want another Anthony Avalos."

Highlighting two young boys whose deaths are connected to the Antelope Valley DCFS offices, Villanueva recently proposed working with the department to select high risk cases and have sheriff deputies visit the homes, much like responding to emergency calls, a plan he says the county dismissed.

"We're in an unprecedented time right now," he said.

Cagle said we began the conversation with the sheriff's department in good faith and are willing to continue that and how we can do it in a way that is not overly stressful for families

Meanwhile, Lopez says she will not waver in her work.

"I believe in my job," she said. "I believe I'm doing the right thing and it just makes me keep going."

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