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Back to the Beginning for Children's Services

April 21, 1985|BILL BOYARSKY | Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau.

Last Tuesday's meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was highlighted by another round in the controversy over care of abused children, a good illustration of the difficulty in solving social problems for California's largest and most complex urban county.

The board asked for a grand jury investigation of new allegations of abuses at MacLaren Hall, the county refuge for abused and neglected children. But nobody expected that to accomplish much. When academics compile local-government case studies, they will find no better example of frustrated good intentions than the story of Los Angeles County's attempts to improve its care of abused and neglected youngsters.

The county is the protector of last resort for children found to be abused or neglected. They are first brought to MacLaren Hall in El Monte and then sent to foster homes or other care facilities, if available.

MacLaren has been around for years and been criticized for years. In the 1970s, when the facility was run by the Probation Department, there were many complaints that children were being cared for by a department used to dealing with youthful criminals, even though the abused were victims and had committed no crime. In 1976, in response to those complaints, MacLaren was transferred to the Department of Public Social Services.

But complaints persisted: stories of overcrowding and stories of how county health inspectors found that psychotic and violent children were being mixed with youngsters who simply were victims of abuse. Eddy S. Tanaka, head of the Department of Public Social Services, defended the staff as dedicated and professional; he said problems were caused by declining public funds and by changes in society beyond the county's control. Among them was the increase in the number of working mothers, putting new strains on families, and the increasing number of abused children, requiring higher levels of child-care skills.

In 1984, with child abuse becoming a major subject of national concern, there were more calls for improvement of MacLaren. In a story with the headline, "The Storing of Neglected Children," Times Staff Writer Lois Timnick reported that the average daily population of MacLaren was 270 and often approached its fire-clearance capacity of 320. "Everyone agrees it is now straining to the breaking point," she wrote. In addition, the county faced a shortage of foster homes for transfers from MacLaren.

This time, there was a major change. Supervisor Ed Edelman pushed for creation of a Department of Childrens Services to bring together what has been learned about dealing with the abused and neglected. A director was appointed, Lola Hobbs, former San Diego welfare administrator. And a citizen's board, the Commission on Children's Services, was created to be a watchdog over the new department.

But this month, after just six months on the job, Hobbs was dumped--under fire from the commission, from supervisors and from workers in her new department. The Board of Supervisors went back to the beginning, once again trying to find a better way to care for the young victims of neglect and abuse.

This past week, county supervisors and members of the bureaucracy tried to figure out what went wrong, and what lessons could be drawn from the failure.

Judging from conversations with staff members, supervisors and others, the main lesson is that--as is the case with other vast social problems--the problem of dealing with the abused children under county care is too complex to be cured with a quick fix, reshuffling bureaucracy into a new department.

Large numbers of such children will continue to fall into county hands as increased public awareness brings their cases to the attention of authorities. As more is known about child abuse, greater demands will be made on those caring for them. More and better-trained workers will be needed, as will improved facilities. As long as MacLaren remains overcrowded and psychotic children are mixed with those who are less troubled, the public will continue to be treated to stories of abuse.

"The public doesn't really understand the mixture of kids we have," James Blaydes, a MacLaren counselor, told a news conference called to defend the facility against new charges of abuses aired in news reports and by the Commission on Children's Services.

On the plus side, the supervisors, in creating the department and now trying to save it, are showing themselves to be free of the ideological rancor that split the board when a conservative majority took over in 1980 and pronounced itself suspicious of most everything connected with government. The supervisors, both conservative and liberal, are admirably pragmatic.

They have a tough job ahead. They must examine the role of the watchdog commission. Some MacLaren workers have said commission members have meddled into the operation of the hall by attacking treatment methods that are actually effective. Edelman, defending the commission, said it has performed a useful service by focusing attention on MacLaren, forcing the staff to try to improve.

The first job is to find a new person to run the troubled operation. That will be difficult. Even those critical of Hobbs said she was hamstrung by her unfamiliarity with a county bureaucracy full of sharp operators who hate change. But the supervisors and the citizens demanding improvements have learned that good intentions are not enough; perhaps now something can be done for the children unfortunate enough to find themselves at MacLaren.

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