In the past 5 years two young boys have been killed by parents.  These boys were not invisible they were seen and reported to us by teachers, family members and neighbors.  The system failed them; not one person; one social worker or a family member—-we as a society that says we care about the most vulnerable; we let these boys down.  We were not there for them when they needed us the most.

I reminded of the death of Elisa Izquierdo in New York City in Dec. 1995.   She was beaten to death in the apartment she shared with her mother and her step father.  Both mother and child were beaten while neighbors called for help but when none came they looked away from the screams coming from next door.

After her death,  Jonathan Kozol wrote an essay for Time Magazine where he  asked us all  to Spare the Cheap Grace.  Elisa Izquierdo was tortured to death  while the authorities  ignored the reports and neighbors grew tired and resigned after numerous requests for interventions.  He goes on to report “In the death zones of America’s postmodern ghetto, stripped of jobs and human services and sanitation, plagued by AIDS, Tuberculosis pediatric asthma and endemic clinical depression, largely abandoned by American physicians and devoid of the psychiatric services familiar in most middle-class communities, deaths like these are part of a predictable scenario.”

He could have been talking about the Antelope Valley here in Los Angeles County.  The question remains after almost twenty years;  do these children; minority poor children have value in our society?  For after we mourn their passing, or the headlines the law suits etc, do we go back to our ordinary world, lean back in our chairs and are grateful that it is someone else’s job to intervene and fix.     Perhaps our economy or our investment in either physical or mental health does not warrant an investment in the children and families of the poor or minority; or particularly in this day; the immigrant. These are not our children; they do not look like us or our neighbors—they are expendable!    We can safely blame the social worker; the bureaucracy or the parents—but we do little to take the responsibility to change the investment to keep children safe.  It is easier to look away and hope that someone will step up; but not us.

As Elie Weisel said in describing “Moral Indifference!”   It is in the knowing that something is wrong, terrible and unjust and doing nothing that true evil exists!   The idea that we have to embrace whatever power we have to advocate for children; poor, minority, undocumented or ignored—-is critical to bringing change to our society.  This is the moment when words take on the power of action; and action is required by those with the power to bring change.  If we ignore the moment we become part of the problem that results in the tortured deaths of small children.

These deaths of children in our County can galvanize the attention of the media— and for a small moment that of society; “That is so sad; how did that happen?”  all this before we move on…perhaps we have already moved on?

I am asking for us to focus on putting Children First….that inconvenience or money should not deter us….the lives of all children—yours, mine and theirs are all equally important and should be cherished and protected.   Unless they are a priority we will continue to let them die, be abused and neglected, grow up to live on the streets or in the penitentiary—we will look away  and practice moral indifference—hoping that no one will notice that we have looked away and practice surprise and chagrin when the plight of children is pointed out to us. “Of course we care.”  Is there a price to be placed on the life of a small Hispanic boy in the High Desert?

Being poor is lonely!”  Poverty is something most of us would love to see cured.  B ut most of us also realize that is impossible in the world we live in today.  Perhaps then we should find someone to blame say perhaps the social worker, the parent.  Poverty is absolutely  part of the equation, but being poor by itself does not lead to the deaths of children; isolation certainly does.  What we can do is prevent loneliness and isolation of the poor single mom or family; we can make certain that our services are always available to social and legal services; to medical providers, mental health professionals and first and foremost to families. Our mandate must be that….        Each child deserves a safe childhood and a chance to succeed!

Why is VIP different than other programs?

  • 15 years ago I was galvanized to seek change: I walked out of death review when Lance Helms’ murder was reviewed.  The statement that the system did not have a place to go to get a real answer to the question—“ Is Lance being abused by his father and is he in danger of being killed” forced us  to identify support to build a system that was always available to answer that question all the while seeking support for families so they did not need to lose their children.  The original funds came from First5LA and led to the creation of the County-wide “HUB” system that has provided a 24 hour expert answer to the question of whether a child is being abused or not and to promote an appropriate response.  These centers have transformed Los Angeles County.
    • Over the past 20 years the death by caretaker numbers have dropped from over 60 to 7 in 2017.
    • Foster care numbers have been cut by 50%.
  • Now it is clear that this system works when it is applied appropriately across the County available to all children through social workers, police and others including parents, grandparents and medical providers.
    • It is not effective when it is closed because it does not meet the expectations of a business plan.
    • It is not effective when the price to save the life of a small brown boy is too high for the system to pay.
    • This is the moment when we need to ask ourselves —what would we want for our children? The best possible service by the best professionals!!!

The director of the OCP stated:  “ Gabriel F would have survived if he had been living in East Los Angeles ( rather than Antelope Valley) or even in South Central where access to immediate assessments and care is available.”

  • It is clear that the up front service  (the HUB) protects children at the moment that a concern or report is raised or made….
    • It also guarantees that the health of the child is most important and that we will move heaven and earth to guarantee safety for every child.
  • But it does not guarantee that those children who are removed and placed in foster care have the chance to thrive or gain a positive foothold on their future. So only identifying the problem does not change outcomes and thereby  this calls for all of us to make a commitment to putting “Children First.”
  • We are calling for a commitment from those who have the power to make Children First to never abdicate their responsibility for the safety and well-being of children; to never look away from this mandate.

What do we need to do in order to make a difference?

Improve safety by guaranteeing that when we as a system of care; the County, the various departments and the community commit the support needed to always be available to be partners in keeping children safe and promoting the stability of the family.

Improve the outcomes for detained children, children who have failed placements, have been in out-of-home placements or group homes, for extended periods of time.

  • Improved and complete assessments at time of detention as well as when placements fail.  Reevaluate children who have been in foster care or group homes for extended periods of time
  • Find extended family members anywhere for stable placements.
  • Rely on HUB or Family Resource Centers at the time of evaluations.
  • Provide Complete and correct diagnosis that will lead to appropriate placements and services.
  • At initial assessments and screening create care coordination with referrals to mental health and other support services;
    • Include mental health assessments for all children at the time they are identified as being at risk.
    • Create medical/mental health homes for all detained children.
  • Create a medical home for the medically fragile or vulnerable child.
  • Establish teen clinics; specialized clinics for CSEC youth and for LGBTQ foster children.
    • Improved access to needed resources (navigating the system for teens
  • Support families through: Call-in lines for parents, foster parents and group homes for information important to the stability of the child post assessment.
  • Mentoring and tutoring.
    • Create mentorship program for both families as well as the children.
    • Education assessments/passports.
  • Transition services for children leaving Foster care: (health, mental health, education, housing, jobs etc).
  • Legal advocacy
  • Work with family resources to communicate problems and potential solutions
  • Anticipate problems and work to resolve.


Advocacy, attitudes and image:

“What can I do to help you?”  Change the attitudes of the bureaucracy to focus on the needs of the children first, rather than power, control and legal barriers to service.   Bring a sense of cooperation and collaboration to everyone charged with the responsibility of improved safety and outcomes.   We need to own our failures and learn from them!


The Other Holocaust Survivors


The Other Holocaust Survivors – Children left in Orphanages

Background:   I was blessed over and over again by the largess and kindness of  Severin Wunderman.  I never met this amazing man, but have heard bits and pieces of his story from his friends.  His legend has it that he survived the Holocaust because his parents left him in an orphanage for the hearing impaired.  AT age 10 he came alone to the US to live with his sister and from these beginnings built an empire of jewelry and watches.  But he came to bless me and the VIP through a foundation called “Change a Life.”  Through this foundation he gave anonymously to agencies like ours who provide care to those impacted by violence and abuse.   He paid for everything from plastic surgery to education for the children we take care of.   It was definitely “manna” from heaven all these past years when we were struggling to find ways to change lives….he certainly did.   When he died 10 years ago, he left some of those who benefited from his generosity a Corum watch.  I wear mine everyday to remind myself of generous giving; giving that does not require acknowledgement or fame.   He continues to inspire me.    But  this story of the orphanage and the children left there to survive by their parents on their way to death camps grabbed me around my heart.

At the onset of WWII thousands of small Jewish children were left in religious orphanages all over Europe by parents who knew that the Holocaust awaited them.   The story of what happened to these children in these Orphanages is a story that has never been told and now all these years later grips me.

The Story as told to me:

When the WWII conflict ended and during the chaotic embryonic time of the founding of Israel, a committee was formed in Israel for the sole purpose of finding these missing children and bringing them home to Israel.

As they began to visit the various charitable orphanages across the continent of Europe there was a consistent response from those in charge, “We have no Jewish Children here.”   But the determined team from Israel knew better, and then asked to see all the children in the orphanage anyway. And when they were all gathered together the envoys from Israel began to sing in Hebrew the songs that had been so carefully woven into the tapestry of their memory of better times with their moms and dads.  And they ran to them and were embraced.

As the story in the telling concluded —“ But Astrid, the saddest part of the story is that these children were so traumatized by being left in these orphanages, essentially abandoned by their parents, that they never recovered and remain some of the most “damaged” of immigrants to Israel.”

But I answered, “Do you believe—knowing what we know now about Catholic schools and orphanages— that these Jewish children were spared the systematic abuse and assault that was consistent across these institutions for many decades?”

I believe that this is one of the most profoundly disturbing and unsettling stories of the children of the Holocaust—-I think it is time to talk to some of these children before their time runs out.  Another asked me “To what end?”   To the purpose that to most of these children the telling will finally give them the opportunity to put this on someone else…to be heard and believed.  The pain and sense of loss never goes away.

I have asked for help in finding the right people to talk with as well as the right people to do the talking.  If you have any ideas please let me know.

Astrid Heppenstall Heger