‘Unseen, unheard and unsafe’

April 11, 2014 

Blue ribbon commission chair David Sanders,center, at the meeting Thursday, with Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, left, and retired judge Dickran M. Tevrizian.

Los Angeles County’s child protection system is broken and demands immediate fixes, according to a draft of a new blue ribbon commission report that paints a troubling portrait of dysfunction, secrecy and largely ineffectual struggles to turn the tide on decades of tragedy and trauma.

“On our watch, many of Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable children are unseen, unheard and unsafe,” the report says in its opening sentence. “In eight months of hearing hundreds of hours of testimony, the commission never heard a single person defend our current child safety system.”

The panel issued numerous recommendations, including creation of a powerful “child protection czar”—a single entity responsible for coordinating child welfare efforts across departmental boundaries and reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors.

The commission’s report, approved Thursday in its draft form, will go before the Board of Supervisors on April 22, with a longer follow-up discussion set for May 20.

Philip Browning, head of the Department of Children and Family Services since 2012, said he agrees with some of the report’s assessments, including a finding that persistent turnover in DCFS leadership over the years has “devastated morale and created endless directives.” He said he welcomes the report’s recognition that it takes an array of departments and agencies—not just DCFS—to protect kids.

“The concept of having everybody be responsible is certainly a good one. The problem is…any time we get a new set of recommendations, we do have to pull people off doing whatever they’re currently doing to respond to those recommendations.”

Browning said he wishes the commission had acknowledged recent progress within the department, including a dramatic expansion of training, a plan to hire more staff and reduce caseloads, creation of a foster care search engine, and a new data-driven approach to make DCFS operate more effectively.

“I was a little surprised that they didn’t look more closely at our strategic plan, the first one in 10 years,” Browning said.  “A lot of things that they’re talking about are already included in our strategic plan.”

The 10-member commission started work following the death of Gabriel Fernandez, a Palmdale boy who died last year following numerous reports of abuse, neglect and torture. The Board of Supervisors was divided about the necessity of creating the blue ribbon panel in the first place; Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe said they wanted to let reforms initiated by Browning have a chance to take root before adding more recommendations to the hundreds that have piled up over the years.

But in the end, all five supervisors appointed members to the panel, including retired judges, a social work educator, advocates for children and families, and a former head of DCFS, commission chair David Sanders.

The commission held 15 public hearings in which it heard testimony about “overwhelming” caseloads, infants spending hours on desks because of a foster home shortage and young people who can’t trust or even reach their social worker.

The draft report depicts a county bureaucracy lurching from crisis to crisis yet failing to coordinate among departments that should be working together. Budget and planning processes are opaque, and communication among those seeking to help children is “needlessly” hampered by various perceived confidentiality restrictions that end up hiding problems instead of correcting them, the report said.

In short, there is “a state of emergency that demands a fundamental transformation of the current child protection system,” the commission found.

It said the Board of Supervisors needs to take action immediately. Commissioners noted that they had provided the board with an interim report in December that included recommendations that could have been implemented at once.

“Since then, another 5,000 referrals of child abuse and neglect have been investigated without the benefit of systemic reform,” the report said. “Each day we wait for reform, 40 more infants are reported as possible victims of abuse or neglect.”

Members of the blue ribbon panel, meeting Thursday at the Hall of Administration, unanimously voted to recommend establishment of a single entity that would oversee all aspects of child protection in the county and have the authority to channel resources across bureaucratic boundaries to get things done.

But commissioners were divided on how best to accomplish that. A majority said a new agency, which could be called the Office of Child Protection, should be formed. But three commissioners said it would be preferable to work within the system and give enhanced responsibility to an existing entity to guide the process.

For his part, DCFS chief Browning said “the devil is in the details” about how such a system would operate.

“I would really like to see somewhere that has worked well. It’s a novel concept,” Browning said. “It’s going to be a potential issue if someone has the authority to move money without much oversight…I would be surprised if the board would give up their authority to do that.”

Beyond its call for placing a single powerful entity in charge, the blue ribbon commission also found that, despite responding to years of crises, the county has failed to establish a clear child protection mission with measurable goals: “The board must mandate that child safety is a top priority,” the draft report said. “It must articulate a child-centered, family-focused countywide mission.”

Part of that mission should focus on protecting children before abuse can happen—something that so far has all too often taken a backseat to reacting to an onslaught of high profile cases, the commission said. That should include pairing public health nurses with social workers on home visits involving infants, creating an “early warning” alert process within the county’s information-sharing Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System, and focusing intensively on those at highest risk.

“Children reported to DCFS prior to age one are at the highest risk for later serious injury or fatality,” the report said.

The report is still being revised, but this link, posted by KPCC, offers a look at the work in progress prior to Thursday’s meeting.

Posted 4/11/14

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