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When It All Goes Wrong

It's typical for child welfare officials to suddenly change course when tragedy strikes, but quick fixes come with a price.


Jonathan Walters

A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

If there's any children and family services system in meltdown right now, it's Los Angeles County's. Over the last few years, they've experienced a string of nearly 40 child fatalities, 17 of them in 2009. Two fatalities earlier this year triggered the standard issue round of finger-pointing and political grandstanding, calls for resignations, punishment and more layers of oversight.

But L.A. County's woes are anything but standard issue. The county itself has been described as one of the most ungovernable in the nation. The county child welfare director job has been described as the toughest public-sector job in the country, having chewed up two directors since the mid-2000s.

The two child deaths earlier in 2010 set off a new round of blame-gamesmanship, with county supervisors pursuing a range of responses from putting current child welfare director Trish Ploehn on the hot seat in private hearings, to the county board of supervisors' decision to rekindle a foster care investigative unit that has the power to shut down low-performing providers.

What tends to get ignored in the overwhelming din of these post-fatality finger-pointing matches are the fundamentals: the county children and family services system is swamped. It fields upwards of 200,000 referrals to its child protection hotline annually. One L.A. social services caseworker says, "It's like fire fighting versus fire prevention. You can't get to prevention and stability without reduction of crisis responses on a constant basis."

Meanwhile, the department's budget has been steadily ratcheted downward -- it is looking at back-to-back budget cuts adding up to nearly 20 percent for 2010 and 2011. And while the county board of supervisors assembles the investigative unit, plans to hire hundreds of new social workers have been put on the back burner.

Also contributing to the chaos is the fact that the county's computer system still doesn't allow widespread data sharing among welfare, health and criminal justice agencies. The ability to share data could go a long way to giving caseworkers and providers the information they need to make more informed choices when it comes to ensuring the best placement decisions for kids -- either keeping them at home or placing them with a relative, a foster family or in an institution.

Another fundamental that's gotten lost in the post-child fatality clamor -- and what's probably most amazing about the county's performance -- is its remarkable progress on reducing the number of children in foster care, from a high in 1997 of 52,000 to just under 20,000 last year.

It is widely accepted among child welfare advocates that children are much better off staying with their families -- even semi-dysfunctional families -- than it is for them to be whisked away and placed with strangers, or worse, whisked away and placed in some institution, where they too often languish way past the time when institutionalization has proven to be at all therapeutic.

But how do you balance that more or less abstract knowledge against a headline about Isabel Garcia, who starved to death in 2009 -- at home -- after it was decided by child welfare staff that she was part of a family that was functioning just fine. Or Daveon Bailey, whose mother's boyfriend has been charged with beating her to death earlier this year, after child welfare staff had been warned about abuse in the home.

What would be most tragic about the L.A. County situation in the long run is if officials abandoned their focus on the goal of family preservation. Sadly, the typical response to the Isabel Garcia and Daveon Bailey tragedies is to emphasize more rapid removal to a "safe" environment. Inevitably, it's a vicious cycle. Incidents involving trouble in foster homes and facilities -- from abuse to fatalities -- make the news, and the push is back on for family preservation.

There are obviously no quick fixes or magic solutions for the problems that L.A. County is experiencing right now. All large systems struggle with a lack of resources. All large systems struggle to balance family preservation with measured removal. All large systems operate in politically-charged environments where child fatalities typically set off emotional rounds of debate and argument that do tend to focus overwhelmingly on placing blame and coming up with quick-fix options that might play well in the paper, but probably won't help much in the long run.

So while Los Angeles County might be in the spotlight right now, their problems are just a more visible version of what virtually all child welfare systems, large and small, are going through right now. The important points to take away from L.A. County's troubles are to avoid making decisions based on emotion rather than on good data; to avoid assigning blame rather than focusing on actual cause and effect; and to understand that in under-resourced and overstressed systems, more kids are going to get hurt and more kids are going to die. That's just a tough fact of the child welfare business.

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