Flawed county system lets children die invisibly
Miguel Padilla, mistreated and abandoned, killed himself at 17
Miguel Angel Padilla Sr., 45, spent much of his time in Mexico and left his son Miguel to be raised mainly by the boy's elderly paternal great-grandmother, Maria Arriaga Hernandez. Eventually Miguel was sent to the LeRoy Haynes Center in La Verne. He escaped from there and killed himself. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times / September 23, 2009)
Unknown to anyone at the time, the 17-year-old amputee made his way to a stand of trees near the main driveway. Using his one arm, he climbed into the branches, tied a makeshift noose to a limb and hanged himself.
Nine days passed before a staffer found his body at the sprawling LeRoy Haynes Center in LaVerne, coroner's records show -- and then only by chance.
"To our knowledge there was no search by LeRoy's or any other authority," said Dave Rentz, the boy's minister.
Miguel Padilla died much as he had lived: alone and out of sight, his suicide the final step in a failed journey through Los Angeles County's child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
At least 268 children who had passed through the child welfare system died from January 2008 through early August 2009, according to internal county records obtained by The Times. They show that 213 were by unnatural or undetermined causes, including 76 homicides, 35 accidents and 16 suicides.
Eighteen of the fatalities were deemed the direct result of abuse or neglect by a caregiver, subjecting them to public disclosure under a recent state law aimed at prevention.
But Miguel and many others perished all but invisibly, their deaths attracting little or no public scrutiny.
Through interviews and previously confidential records, The Times examined his death and that of Lazhanae Harris, a 13-year-old girl slain in March. Both underscore systemic failings, particularly the risks of losing track of abused kids as they commit crimes and "cross over" to the justice system, or as they move through multiple state-licensed homes.
Together, they also illustrate the range of flaws in a system in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can't or won't care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better -- and are sometimes worse.
Trish Ploehn, director of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, said such deaths, though horrific, do not represent the vast majority of the thousands of cases her agency handles each year.
"The tragic lives and deaths of Miguel and Lazhanae only begin to scratch the surface of the extremely difficult, complex and complicated family circumstances that DCFS social workers are faced with every day," Ploehn said.
"It is very rare for a child to die of abuse or neglect while in the care or under the supervision of DCFS," she added, "and we consistently work to perfect our performance to help keep children safe, even after they leave our protection and supervision."
Ploehn said efforts are under way to improve collaboration between juvenile justice and child welfare officials and to intervene swiftly in the lives of troubled families.
By almost any measure, Miguel's life would fit the definition of mistreatment: He was abandoned by his mother, largely neglected by his father and left to struggle with untreated medical problems and depression most of his life.
By the time he died, however, he'd broken the law and moved from the care of the county's children's services department to that of its Probation Department, which oversees 20,000 juvenile offenders.
Up to half have a history with the child welfare agency, Probation Department Director Robert Taylor said. Ploehn said the proportion was far lower.
In Miguel's case, interviews and records show, the county failed him time and again -- not finding him a stable home, not addressing emotional problems that contributed to his delinquency, not even looking for him when he disappeared.
When the County Children's Commission, a panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors, took the extraordinary step of reviewing Miguel's death and four others among abused children on probation last year, it found "serious and consistent deficiencies" in their care. Four were suicides and one died of disease.