Crime & Justice

County officials stress child welfare services after mother's death in police custody

Director of the Department of Children and Family Services Phillip Browning holds up a sign with the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000.
Director of the Department of Children and Family Services Phillip Browning holds up a sign with the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county is fully focused on avoiding another death like that of Alesia Thomas, a woman who died while in custody after dropping her children off at a Southeast police station. He called a news conference Friday with county child welfare officials and city police.

“We do not wish to in any way cause anyone to feel that they should be reluctant to take advantage the safe houses in the city or to take advantage of the DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] office,” said Ridley-Thomas.

Alesia Thomas, 35, died July 22 when she stopped breathing while sitting handcuffed in the back of an LAPD patrol car. Police had arrested Thomas on suspicion of child endangerment after she allegedly left her two boys, 3 and 12, at the Southeast police station because she couldn’t care for them.

A struggle ensued during the arrest and force was used.

Now LAPD is investigating to determine whether questionable tactics and comments were made during the arrest — and whether those tactics played a role in Thomas’ death.

LAPD Cmdr. Bill Scott, the assistant commanding officer for the South Bureau, would not say whether a social worker accompanied police when they visited Thomas after finding the two boys at the police station.

Authorities also would not comment on whether a social worker had already been working with Thomas and her family prior to her arrest and subsequent death.

Scott did say it is policy for police to involve the county's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) when officers come across children who are in danger.

“Some stations have social workers that are co-located. If they don’t, we call and we request a social worker to respond,” he said.

Scott also said county social workers are assigned to the Southeast, Southwest and 77th Street police stations. He said they do not work 24/7, but can be called upon any time.

LAPD Police Commissioner Andrea Ordin said the police department would redouble partnership efforts with DCFS and increase training so that all officers are aware of the county’s services for parents.

Officials encouraged parents to use the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000, if they need any help with children.

“No parent should believe that they are in this by themselves,” said Phillip Browning, director of LA County Department of Children and Family Services.

L.A. County participates in the Safely Surrendered Baby Law, which allows parents to give up an unwanted infant without fear of arrest or prosecution for abandonment as long as the baby has not been abused and is dropped off at a hospital or fire station within three days of birth.

The law does not apply to older children, but Browning said L.A. city police and fire departments are willing to take on those kinds of situations.

Browning said he hoped people would first consider talking with DCFS before leaving children at police stations, but he said the stations are still considered safe houses. DCFS would investigate after children are dropped off to see what the problem is but Browning said law enforcement is not always involved in those investigations.