Another hard look at DCFS

July 25, 2013 

A blue ribbon panel will investigate the vast network of agencies responsible for keeping children safe.

An independent commission created as Los Angeles County’s latest effort to keep children safer in its sprawling child welfare system took final shape this week, as the Board of Supervisors named the last four appointees, ranging from child advocates to the former head of the county’s juvenile court.

The appointments to the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Child Protection rounded out a 10-member panel established after the May 24 death of Gabriel Fernandez.  The 8-year-old Palmdale boy was left by social workers in the care of his mother and her boyfriend despite multiple reports of abuse, neglect and torture.

The mother and boyfriend are being held on murder charges and several employees have been placed on desk duty pending results of an internal investigation at the Department of Children and Family Services.

In the wake of that case and others, however, a majority of the supervisors also believed that that the child protective system needed a deeper examination by an independent investigative body modeled after the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, which last year recommended reforms after disclosures of deputy brutality in the county lockup.

Ex-DCFS chief David Sanders

Former DCFS Director David Sanders, appointed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said in an interview that the panel will have a broad mandate to investigate the network of agencies that interact in the child welfare system, including law enforcement and schools.

“This is a full, countywide, responsibility and not just a DCFS responsibility,” Sanders stressed in an interview. “What’s most critical is to understand very specifically how many children are being seriously injured due to abuse and neglect. What are the numbers of fatalities? How many children are being re-injured after they come to the attention of the agency? And how can the county improve safety for children?”

Retired Judge Terry Friedman, appointed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said the panel will need to distinguish itself from earlier investigations that have led to management shakeups and hundreds of recommended reforms.

“It’s something we need to address—are we different or are we just the next installment of a longstanding litany of good-intended efforts?” Friedman said.  “And if not, how do we approach this issue differently?”

One challenge the commission will face, he added, is the belief that, with the right set of solutions, child deaths can be halted altogether in a system as big and complex as Los Angeles County’s.

“That isn’t to say we can’t make it less likely,” said Friedman, whose 15 years on the bench included stints as the supervising judge for the juvenile dependency court and presiding judge for the juvenile court.

“But realistically, the challenges are so embedded in our society that the best one can hope for is to recognize possibilities and limitations and be realistic in order to make some progress, rather than pretending that perfection is possible.”

Friedman was named to the panel on Tuesday, along with Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, a founding board member and past chair of the Alliance for Children’s Rights and a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, and Janet Teague, who has served both on the Alliance board and on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families. Also appointed this week was Gabriella Holt, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education and a current member of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission.

Like Friedman, Gilbert-Lurie was appointed by Yaroslavsky. Supervisor Don Knabe appointed Holt and Teague.

The four completed a series of earlier appointments that included:

  • Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work, appointed by Ridley-Thomas.
  • Richard Martinez, a former foster youth who is superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, and Andrea Rich, former president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both appointed by Supervisor Gloria Molina.
  • Dan Scott, a recently retired veteran of the Sheriff’s Department’s Special Victim’s Bureau, and DickranTevrizian, a retired U.S. District Court judge, both appointed by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

Among the more intriguing picks was Sanders, who oversaw DCFS from 2003 until 2006. Now based in Seattle, he left to become executive vice president of systems improvement for a national foundation specializing in foster care, the Casey Family Programs.

Since his departure, the department has had five directors and acting directors, with the latest turnover occurring last year, when veteran county executive Philip Browning agreed to take over.  Browning—who had overhauled the county’s child support efforts and the Department of Public Social Services—was implementing a new strategic plan and training curriculum at DCFS when the Fernandez death was disclosed.

“It’s a tough job,” Sanders said, adding that he hopes the commission will focus on the big child protective picture “rather than interfere or kind of rehash issues that have been examined multiple times.”

“The demands on the department can be quite daunting,” he added. “But I think Phil is somebody who has a lot of experience in the county, and I hope the commission can augment his work and take some of the pressure off him for issues that are really countywide.”

Posted 7/25/13

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