LOS ANGELES - A plan put forward by the Los Angeles County Sheriff to have deputies conduct welfare checks on children considered to be at risk of child abuse during lockdown has fallen apart after the county’s child protective services director suggested the door knocks may harm families rather than help them.
Teachers and counselors are the top reporters of child abuse, and with schools closed during lockdown, LASD says the Suspected Child Abuse Reports (SCARs) they receive have plummeted by 1,172 compared to this time last year.
Additionally, the Department of Children and Family Services says the number of calls to the Child Protection Hotline has decreased by as much as 50 percent since the coronavirus pandemic began.
With this in mind, Sheriff Alex Villanueva approached DCFS with a proposed partnership to help keep children in lockdown safe, and avoid what happened with Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Avalos, two Antelope Valley boys who died after repeated incidents of torture and abuse at their homes.
Captain Michael Hannemann of LASD’s Special Victims Bureau was tasked with spearheading the plan, and communicating with DCFS.
“We just do not want to see children injured,” Hannemann said.
Hannemann told FOX 11 the proposed partnership between LASD and DCFS would have had DCFS provide the Sheriff’s Department with a list of children at risk for child abuse. LASD would then conduct welfare checks.
“It’s 100% a welfare check, so we’re just going out to see how the child is doing,” he said.
The captain told FOX 11 that everyone at DCFS was on board, including DCFS Director Bobby Cagle.
Emails obtained by FOX 11 show DCFS’s senior deputy director, Diane Iglesias, had been communicating with Hannemann about the partnership.
“We got confirmation from Diane Iglesias that it was a 100% go from DCFS, they were going to participate,” Hannemann said.
But LASD says Cagle and DCFS suddenly backed out during a phone call with Sheriff Villanueva.
“He changed his mind, and was not going to provide us with anything,” Hannemann said.
Cagle said while there were conversations with LASD, there was never a final agreement, telling FOX 11 the following in a statement:
“The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is deeply concerned about the drop in child abuse complaints during the COVID-19 crisis. We know that this is a time of severe stress for many families, and we are mobilizing as never before to make sure vulnerable children are protected, including comprehensive media outreach asking the community to be especially vigilant about the welfare of children.
DCFS participated in initial discussions with LASD about potential joint temporary efforts to offset the significant drop in reporting of child abuse and neglect. In the end, DCFS decided that sending a uniformed law enforcement officer to a family’s home without any articulable suspicion of child abuse or neglect would not necessarily improve safety for children. To the contrary, such an action might increase stress on families and children, especially those in already marginalized communities, during one of the most stressful times most have ever experienced.”
“I think that allegation is ridiculous, we knock on doors all the time, we’re not in a Gestapo state, we don’t act like that,” Hannemann said.
At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl also expressed disapproval with the Sheriff’s plan.
“We have also had an ongoing issue with the Sheriff recently where he’s identified some need that came out of his own head, I think to send deputies to the homes of children,” she said. “He says he was doing that in partnership with DCFS, but as Director Kagle reported, there was no such partnership, and indeed, DCFS has its own social workers in contact with those children and does not want law enforcement to go banging on people’s doors about this.”
Sheriff Villaneuva believes a political decision was made, fueled by his ongoing feud with the Board.
In a statement, he tells FOX 11 the following:
“Every recommendation since 2013 points to a closer partnership between DCFS and law enforcement. Allowing politics and bureaucracy to return us to a pre-Gabriel mindset is unacceptable. We are stunned at the response from the Board of Supervisors and their Director of DCFS and do not believe their opinion is shared by the hard working line staff of DCFS.”
“They seemed very much on board, they thought it was a great idea,” Hannemann said. “They knew our best interest was just the welfare of the children, I think there was just unfortunately some political influence at the upper echelons, so the improper decision was made at the behest of somebody who stuck their hands where quite honestly, they should not have.”
And the Captain tells FOX 11, the results of that decision, may help keep abuse hidden from the public eye.
“I think it’s going to spike,” Hannemann said. “I think we’re going to be subjected to identifying some serious abuse and neglect on some of the children that have been locked down in their homes.”