By Garrett Therolf
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a sweeping reform of the county's troubled child protection operation, creating an independent office charged with improving how the region's abused and neglected children are treated.
The new office will be run by a "child protection czar" with authority over a variety of departments to better coordinate care and prevent problems that have led to child deaths. To cut down on bureaucratic breakdowns that have also stymied child services, this czar will report directly to the supervisors rather than to various agency leaders.
The move marks the biggest change in the way the county shields threatened children since the Department of Children and Family Services was created 26 years ago. And it comes after a series of child deaths generated outrage because the victims were supposedly under the watch of social workers.
"We know that our child protection system is in crisis," Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "We can't wait any longer. We must act now."
Janis Spire, president of the Alliance for Children's Rights, praised the plan because it not only focuses on child abuse but also aims to improve the lives of kids who have spent years in foster care or face significant educational and mental health problems.
The vote occurred a year after the death of Gabriel Fernandez. The 8-year-old boy was found with his skull cracked, three ribs broken, and skin that was bruised and burned. BB pellets were embedded in his lung and groin, and two teeth were knocked out.
The Times reported last year that social workers had investigated six reports of abuse but allowed Gabriel to stay with his birth mother and her boyfriend. Sheriff's deputies separately investigated at least four more reports but did not rescue the boy or cross-report the complaints to county welfare agencies. The mother and boyfriend are facing murder charges in the case.
In April, a blue ribbon commission appointed by the supervisors said the county's current system was in a "state of emergency" and suggested that a child welfare czar was vital.
"Other communities have turned around systems that are just as broken," said Commissioner Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, whose report noted that dramatic improvements in the prevention of child abuse fatalities occurred in Tampa, Fla., after officials there implemented similar changes.
A majority of supervisors was initially cool to the recommendations -- saying they were too costly, added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and might disrupt reform efforts already underway. But Molina and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were able to win over two of their three colleagues amid growing public pressure for dramatic change.
The czar will be responsible for policy and budget recommendations for all services supporting abused and neglected children stretching across the county hospital system, the mental health department and other agencies.
Don Knabe was the lone supervisor to vote no, saying the new Office of Child Protection would create "new layers of unnecessary bureaucracy that will be telling our departments how to do their jobs."
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky had been considered the swing vote and did not reach a final decision until shortly before the question was called. From the dais, he said he reluctantly came to the conclusion that a czar represented the best possible solution after years pursuing failed alternatives. "I don't know if it will work but I think it's worth a shot," he said.
After Yaroslavsky endorsed the plan, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said he would abandon his opposition and vote yes in exchange for a pledge to increase the number of pediatricians available for child abuse examinations in the Antelope Valley, which is part of his district.
The county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, was ordered to complete a detailed cost analysis for dozens of additional recommendations from the blue ribbon commission, including a proposal to greatly expand the use of county clinics to perform child abuse investigations.
Another key recommendation would pair a public health nurse with all social workers considering child abuse allegations involving those age 1 and younger. And the commission said that the county should better manage foster care contractors by tying payment levels to the quality of care delivered.
"This is worth the effort because I know that the status quo is untenable and costly -- morally and financially," Ridley-Thomas said.
The supervisors said they would immediately embark on the selection process for the new czar, and they voted to establish a transition team to provide guidance and prioritize policy initiatives until the new office is formed.
DCFS has been criticized for years over its care of children. In recent years, dozens of children have died of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of county social workers.
The county's current child welfare chief, Philip Browning, told The Times that he did not expect to be considered for the new role but intended to remain in his position leading the family services department.
"L.A. County will be unique because it will be the only jurisdiction in the country to have something like this," Browning said, "so I think it is a very bold move and highlights the board's interest in child protection."
One possible czar candidate being mentioned by county officials is David Sanders, a former family services director who chaired the blue ribbon commission.
Fujioka had been selected by supervisors seven years ago under similar hopes that he would be able to better coordinate services across departmental lines. But his authority over family services was removed three years ago after complaints of slow progress.
Fujioka said in an interview that his office would support the new czar, but he also issued a report that was pessimistic about the feasibility of fully implementing the plan.
"In certain instances, state law may need to change in order for some child-related services to be reallocated from some county departments to an Office of Child Protection," the report said. "To the extent the duties of various county departments could be redistributed, ordinances, civil service rules and [labor contracts] would need to be amended," he added.
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