120 reports of child abuse a day in South LA, officials say

April 26, 2012, 2:51 p.m.

Exposure to violence can set off biological reactions that make kids literally age faster, according to a new Duke University study. (Credit: Citra Pramadi/Flickr Creative Commons)

Kids exposed to violence might literally be older than their years.

That's according to a new study out of Duke University, which found that the DNA of 10-year-olds who have experienced violence showed wear that's typically associated with aging.

According to Duke's press release, researchers honed in on telomeres – DNA sequences found at the tips of chromosomes that prevent DNA from unraveling, so to speak. (Think the plastic tips at the end of your shoelaces.) These telomeres naturally get shorter every time cells divide, and that process of losing telomeres is accelerated by smoking, obesity, psychological disorders and stress – stress like the kind that violence can cause.

The study looked at 1,100 British families with twins beginning with the twins' birth, which was sometime in the '90s. Researchers looked at DNA samples taken from each child when they were five and then 10 years old, in addition to conducting interviews with the twins' mothers. Through those interviews, they learned which of the subjects experienced some form of violence in their younger years, whether that was domestic violence, bullying or physical abuse.

Children with a history of two or more kinds of violent exposure had significantly more telomere loss than the other children. That's not good, as shorter telomeres have been associated with lower chances of survival and chronic diseases.

Child abuse: The L.A. landscape

Information from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) shows that in March alone, the department received 17,469 allegations of some type of abuse toward children. Allegations ranged from sexual abuse (9.6 percent of allegations) to physical abuse (21.8 percent) to general neglect (27.7 percent) to sibling abuse (26.9 percent).

South Los Angeles in particular has always been problematic, according to Neil Zanville, who works in the Office of Public Affairs for DCFS.

"It is heavy there," he said. "A lot of our referrals that come to our hotline are generated from South Los Angeles."

Eric Marts is the deputy director for DCFS' Service Bureau 2, which includes South L.A.'s Service Planning Area (SPA 6). He said even though geographically the area is small, it's so dense that it requires three offices: Vermont Corridor, Compton and Wateridge.

Marts said on average, Compton and Vermont Corridor get between 650-800 calls alleging child abuse every month; Wateridge gets around 1,000.

"I think it's high," he said. "You probably will find most of the other offices range from 500-700, and some of the offices are just as high or maybe a little higher."

But for the most part, he said, the southside sees an average of 2,400 new referrals a month, meaning calls occur at a rate of about 120 new cases a day. And that doesn't include weekends or after-hours, said Marts – an automated system takes care of those, and some of those are from South L.A., too.

And that's on top of ongoing cases, added Marts, meaning every month, Compton is dealing with about 2,500; Vermont Corridor, with 3,000; and Wateridge with 3,300.

Blanca Vega, the assistant regional manager for the Compton office, explained some of the factors. "In our service area, there's a lot of economic depression," she said. "We have a lot of substance abuse and sale. There's a lot of gang activity."

Marts estimated that 50 percent of calls to the department's hotline come from schools, hospital and law enforcement. Part of the reason for the high number of allegations is the fact that many cases will be "evaluated out" – determined ineligible for a social worker visit – because the department is unable to fully substantiate an allegation. Many times DCFS will return to a home numerous times before they can finally substantiate a case of child abuse and put a family into the system.

"We're making a big push in these areas – South L.A. and all across L.A. County – to engage these families immediately when they come in the system," Zanville explained. "We try to see if there are ways that we can keep the kids out of the system, without putting them into foster care and removing them from their homes." Sometimes that means providing the appropriate services to families – family preservation, mental health, substance abuse or domestic violence services, for example. Marts said DCFS has had "pretty good success" with that.

If there's an imminent danger to children, though, that's not an option. Once kids are taken out of their homes, DCFS will assess what services the kids and their families will need and attempts to link them with those services as soon as possible.

"As to how that plays out, children are amazingly resilient," said Zanville. "But at times there can be horrific abuse. Some of our youth do very well, and others are more of a long-term project."

Marts echoed that. "You'll see some kids come out of that and they're OK," he said. "And you'll see some kids who are really disturbed by the process and never recover. We see a lot of kids with very negative outcomes. They may end up homeless or pregnant."

Photo by Citra Pramadi via Flickr Creative Commons.

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