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Panel Says County Should Create New Department to Protect Children

Los Angeles County's child welfare system is "in crisis," a commission says. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says a new oversight office is "preposterous."

The seal of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of Los Angeles Couty.
The seal of Los Angeles County. Courtesy of Los Angeles Couty.

Originally posted at 2:27 p.m. April 22, 2014. Edited with new details.

By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO
City News Service

A commission evaluating Los Angeles County's child welfare system concluded today that it is "in crisis" and asked for a major overhaul, including the creation of an Office of Child Protection.

Commission members said the proposed office could oversee child safety and control resources across relevant departments without adding bureaucracy.

"It should act as a knife that cuts through bureaucratic layers," commission member Dr. Andrea Rich told the Board of Supervisors.

Over eight months, the commission interviewed more than 300 people, reviewed 28 child deaths and evaluated hundreds of reports and previous recommendations aimed at improving the quality of lives of children in the county's care.

"The problem fundamentally is not a lack of good ideas or good people," commission vice chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie said. "Even that road out to Gabriel Fernandez's home in Palmdale was paved with good intentions."

Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy, died after allegedly being tortured by his mother's boyfriend, despite repeated reports of abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services. The boy's highly-publicized death prompted internal reforms and a move by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich to establish the child welfare commission.

In addition to a "fundamental transformation" of the county system under a new umbrella agency, the commission offered about 40 specific recommendations. Proposals highlighted today included a shift to focus resources on children younger than 5, those determined to be at highest risk and to provide more support to relatives acting as caregivers.

Rich said the current leadership of the department lacked the expertise to change the system and called for a "change agent" with a "small office" to lead the charge.

At the same time, the commission encouraged greater involvement by some county departments. It urged the Board of Supervisors to give the Department of Public Health a larger role in assessing and coordinating care for at-risk children and to ask the District Attorney's Office to take a greater oversight and investigative role.

The board's reaction to the report was mixed.

Ridley-Thomas hailed the findings as "a potential break-through moment" and said the new recommendations could remove a "climate of hysteria" around child welfare.

"I don't see blame in this report, I see analysis. I see constructive critique," Ridley-Thomas said.

Supervisor Don Knabe said he was open to any ideas for protecting the county's children, but warned of possible legal challenges posed by specific reforms. Any changes would have to be made in concert with reforms now underway, he said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said all but one of the roughly 40 recommendations had  been suggested by others in some iteration, and while some proposals were "good," others were "turkeys."

Yaroslavsky said he would not support a new oversight office.

"A 20-member commission to oversee this effort is a non-starter for me," Yaroslavsky said, adding that he thought the idea "preposterous."

Supervisor Gloria Molina said she believed the board was committed to reform.

"I think we need to study it," Molina said. "I think we need to look at every single opportunity available to us to put the kind of reform in place that is really going to take hold."

The board directed the chief executive officer to review the report with DCFS and report back to the board by May 20 with a fiscal and legal analysis of the proposals.

"Without support from the top and a wind to its back, any reform of this magnitude will fail," Rich told the board.

A different Paul April 23, 2014 at 12:20 PM
Being fairly familiar with DCFS, there will be significant improvement when each caseworker has no more than 24 children to see each month. When a case worker has up to 58 children on their case load it is difficult to do real social work. Cases (children) get lost in the masses of paperwork. DCFS is in the midst of hiring more workers with the intent of getting cases down to 24 by Fall. In addition to a more sensible socialworker/child ratio, the workers and administrators need better training. There are administrators whose focus is more on paperwork than on child safety. It is imperative that case workers be taught good organizational skills- it is one thing to understand social work and care- but if your files are a mess and scattered all over your desk, you will be hampered in what you can do and your stress level will be higher than it needs to be. If DCFS had classes in basic organizational skills, it would make a profound change in the workers ability to do their job- and would probably help with retention. Also, the administrators need to respect the case workers who are out on the front lines. Administrators are supporting players- not rulers over petty fiefdoms. And support staff need to be more focused on helping social workers with copies, faxing, whatever, than on filing their fingernails. It seems that the support staff forget that their job is still helping children even if they are not on the front lines. Social work is tough business. If a social worker is buried in bureaucracy, they will not be able to do what is most important- focus on child safety first.
Jill McKeon April 23, 2014 at 12:21 PM
They all have blood on their hands. Shame, shame, shame on the County Board of Supervisors for not dropping everything and focusing like a non-stop laser on this issue. How many children have to die under the supervision of the County of Los Angeles before the Supervisors will do something!!!
Don April 23, 2014 at 12:37 PM
I thought there was already a department called "Child Protective Services." Hmm are they disbanding this inept group after they prosecute all the criminal activity of neglect and disregard amongst themselves and starting a new "get it right" group. Naw didn't think so. Just another way gov't will fleece the public by adding another tier of bureaucracy that will take years to evolve where they'll once again tell you and me they're still earning from their mistakes. My answer: No. Fire the inept. Prosecute those who committed criminal acts within their job; hold the rest accountable to protect those they are chartered to protect
A different Paul April 23, 2014 at 01:18 PM
DCFS- the Department of Children and Family Services. The department has lots of issues- but at the same time there are a lot of hard workers who care deeply about what they do. The department administration needs to better support the workers so they CAN do their jobs. The challenge lies in changing the way the department is run- more case workers will help immensely- that will be implemented by Fall. But the case workers need to be trained in organizational skills (filing etc.- sounds mundane but critical when you do not want children to get lost in the shuffle).
Pamela Conley Ulich April 23, 2014 at 08:30 PM
I believe it is time for action, not further study. It is time for respect, not dismissiveness. The Commission unanimously concluded that a "State of Emergency" exists in the current child protection system. Reform will only take as long or as little time as 3 votes on the Board of Supervisors decide it will take. If elected to serve the 3rd District, I will implement the recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon task force, and not ask for yet another study. The report uncovers the fact that 4 months have transpired since the Commission issued its interim recommendation which everyone agreed was both urgent and able to be implemented with current resources - - - the recommendation that medical screening exams should be performed on detained children under the age of one. (see p. 12) How could the Board fail to act at least on this one simple recommendation? LA County Supervisors can use their discretionary funds to implement the hiring of a Child Welfare Chief/Czar before more innocent children become the next victims. LA County voters will be given the opportunity to vote for 2 new Supervisors in the June primary and in November this year. I hope and pray that the newly elected Supervisors will make protecting children a priority.

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