15 November 2015

Cradle to Grave

L.A.’s family-unfriendly family court

Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Whenever a toddler dies in Los Angeles, if the word “accident” or “drowning” doesn’t immediately appear in the headline, anyone versed in the basics of family trauma will already know the cause of death: the boyfriend. Sometimes it’s the biological father, but more often it’s the mother’s inamorato—a man in his twenties, who has a record, who shakes, beats, or starves a baby to death. There’s almost always a story in which the baby ends up in the ER or the ambulance several hours too late; translated into the bloodless euphemisms favored by court records and news reports, it becomes a weirdly causeless-sounding tragedy—the baby “fell” or “just stopped breathing.”

And if you peer a bit deeper into the patterns of family pathology, you come upon another near-universal trend: whatever bleak house this child was raised in was not off the radar. That is to say, many children who perish at the hands (or the equally lethal negligence) of their parents are already known to social workers. In 2014, forty-two children died of abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County. At least half of these had been previously referred to the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).


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