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Digre Digs In : New Children's Services Chief Arrives in L.A., Goes Right to Work

January 03, 1991|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Digre arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Florida at 10:30 p.m. in the waning hours of New Year's Day and promptly lived up to his reputation as a workaholic.

One hour after stepping off the plane, the man hired by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to revamp the county's scandal-plagued Department of Children's Services was already on the job.

Without checking into his hotel, Digre drove straight to the department's child abuse hot line and emergency response command post, where social workers are on call around the clock to respond to urgent reports of child abuse. He stayed until 1 a.m., talking with the staff and their director, who showed up in a coat and tie to brief his new boss, formerly the No. 2 man in Florida's health services agency.

"It was very pleasant, I've got to tell you," recalled Eladio Sainz, who runs the command post and hot line. "As we walked through the two floors, I introduced him to the employees and the feeling was very relaxed. I was very pleased. . . . He really seems to know what he's getting into."

So it was that the Department of Children's Services, fraught with troubles since its inception, came under the leadership of its third permanent director in six years.

Digre is stepping into the job at a time when the agency, still reeling from reports last summer that children were being abused in foster homes, must undergo a massive state-ordered overhaul. Moreover, he has been hired without the full support of county supervisors; two of the five board members voted against his appointment, citing complaints that he is difficult to work for.

In an interview Wednesday, Digre made it clear that he is not daunted by the task ahead, which includes putting the so-called "corrective action plan" in place, or by his predecessors' inability to survive in a job that is widely regarded as a political hot potato.

"I bought a 10-year ticket to the Rose Parade," he joked.

Was he nervous? "That's a good question. I guess I've not thought to be nervous yet."

Digre, who will earn $115,000 a year in his new post, takes over for Elwood Lui, a former appellate judge who ran the department for five months after its previous director resigned. Until Monday, the 46-year-old Digre was deputy director of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, a vast agency with an annual budget of $7.4 billion and more than 10 times as many employees as he will supervise in Los Angeles, where the department serves 55,000 children.

On Wednesday, Digre was greeted with cautious optimism by the agency's managers and employees, many of whom have grown weary after months of negative publicity and years of seeing directors come and go.

Carole Hansen, who supervises the agency's 1,500 social workers, said she and her colleagues are "hopeful that we can get moving in the right direction. . . . We've got the corrective action plan. It looks good on paper. Now, let's do it."

She said she is not concerned about Digre's reputation as a taskmaster: "High energy and hard work doesn't bother us, frankly, as much as the political chaos."

Before meeting Digre, Emery Bontrager, the department spokesman, said he thought the new boss got off to a good start. "So far, I like what he did," Bontrager said. "The minute he hit the runway, he went to business."

Digre stepped into his sixth-floor corner office at 425 Shatto Place, just west of downtown, shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday. He wore a County of Los Angeles pin on his left lapel and carried a tattered brown leather briefcase that was bulging with documents--state regulations, budget statistics, a class-action lawsuit that is pending against the department, the overhaul plan and a yellow legal pad on which he jotted notes to himself.

His new secretary presented him with a nameplate for his desk, on which she had left him a handwritten note that said, simply: "Welcome."

By 9:30 a.m., the first three pages of Digre's legal pad were filled with a wide-ranging list of 81 ideas he plans to pursue, among them improving health care for foster children; setting up a program by which churches would recruit foster and adoptive parents; streamlining policies and procedures and improving training for social workers.

"The overall goal," he said, "is that this is going to be recognized all over the country as the best children's services department in the country."

To that end, he said, he expects to establish a formal planning body of community child advocates and his own staff. His first days in office will be spent meeting people--outside advocates and department employees, other county department chiefs, the deans of social work at UCLA, USC and Cal State Long Beach, as well as the officials at the state Department of Social Services who have been clamoring for improvements.

Digre said it may take him two to three years to turn the department around. Among his short-term goals are improving the department's record of visiting foster children and providing more support to families so that their children do not have to go into foster care. Over the long term, he wants to develop a far-reaching computer system to provide social workers with detailed information about individual child abuse cases.

But before he does anything, Digre said he is going to get a beeper so that his staff can page him any day at any time with news of an emergency.

"Policy No. 1 is: I get to hear about it first," he said. "Procedure No. 1 is: My beeper number is such and such."

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