updated 8/18/2009 3:08:57 PM ET 2009-08-18T19:08:57

A Los Angeles woman who decapitated her 4-year-old with a kitchen knife showed signs of mental illness nine months before the attack, yet Los Angeles County child welfare officials decided she wasn't a serious threat to the boy.

Lars Sanchez was found dead on July 18 in a bedroom he shared with his mother. She was on the floor, her left wrist slashed to the bone.

Nine months earlier, Yolanda Tijerina was investigated after she began screaming and shouting, "I think you killed my son!" — apparently to no one in particular — outside the boy's Highland Park preschool, the Los Angeles Times said.

The principal at Meridian Children's Center reported her to the county's child abuse hotline.

Social workers, who investigated for several days, learned that Tijerina often spoke nonsensically, and the boy's adult sister told officials that she believed her brother was in danger.

The investigation concluded that the mother's "emotional stability, developmental status or cognitive deficiency impairs her current ability to supervise, protect or care for the child."

However, officials concluded that the boy could remain at the home if there were three months of informal monitoring by family members, neighbors and a neighborhood resource center, the Times said, citing documents released by the county Department of Children and Family Services.

Emotional abuse allegations involving the boy could not be substantiated, the department concluded.

The employees involved in the case have been assigned to desk duty pending a review.

Other cases under review
Last month, county supervisors voted to review the deaths of about a dozen children who had been the subject of abuse complaints to the county. The vote followed the July beating death of 6-year-old Dae'von Bailey in South Los Angeles. His stepfather is suspected of killing him.

The boy reportedly had been the subject of about a dozen calls to child welfare authorities about possible abuse.

Last year, social workers removed 4,468 children from Los Angeles County homes, and parental mental illness was the main reason in nearly a fifth of those cases.

However, mental illness alone doesn't disqualify a parent from caring for a child. Social workers must also determine if the child is being abused or neglected, the parent is getting treatment, and whether there are other adults at home to care for the child.

The decision can be difficult.

"Social workers are not necessarily trained to assess a parent's mental health," said Charles Sophy, medical director with the Department of Children and Family Services.

"Mental illness is easy to hide sometimes," Sophy said. "You can put on a smiling face when I knock on your door, and I will never know that you tried to kill yourself last week."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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