A mother accused of killing her 4-year-old daughter pleaded not guilty to murder charges in a Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday.
The news came as the NBC4 I-Team has learned the mother has a long history with the county's child welfare system and may have only recently gotten custody of the little girl and her siblings.
Akira Smith,35, is accused of torturing and murdering her daughter, Eternity.
An emergency call for a child in cardiac arrest brought first responders to her home in on Aug. 11. The caller suspected child abuse. Three other children also lived in the home, according to LA County Department of Children and Family Services documents obtained by the I-Team.
The documents show more than a dozen prior contacts between the family and DCFS dating back years and indicate her children were removed from her custody four years ago.
An assessment by DCFS in September 2016 determined the situation "very high risk" and the children were placed with a maternal aunt, according to the documents. According to the criminal complaint, Smith was convicted in 2016 of assault with a deadly weapon and in 2014 of injuring her partner.
The documents show another assessment last year that suggested Smith's home was a safe environment and this March, it appears the children - ages 1 to 16 - were allowed to return.
The new information comes as the department has started to release information about children's deaths to the public.
"I want to be as transparent about those things as possible," DCFS director Bobby Cagle said.
The data online shows in the first five months of 2020, 107 deaths were reported to the county's child protection hotline,
More than half have a history in the DCFS system.
Twenty three deaths involved suspected or confirmed abuse and neglect; six confirmed abuse and neglect deaths had prior DCFS history.
"We're working hard to correct any deficiencies that we had and to the best we can and help children and families at same time," Cagle said.
Cagle also says his agency has started ramping up training on the tools social workers used to determine risk. So far, only 7% of social workers have gone through the training. The majority of children in the system's care have received at least one in-person visit, he added.
It's unclear if the Smith family was required or had a visit before Eternity's death.
Attorney Brian Claypool, representing Eternity's grandmother, says he's investigating whether the mother should have been permitted to have unsupervised visits with Eternity at all.