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190 Child Service Jobs May Be Cut : Budget: Department's new chief says he will press local and state officials to make up $9.5-million shortfall. Short-term layoffs would coincide with a caseload increase.

January 23, 1991|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The already troubled agency charged with caring for Los Angeles County's poor and abused children faces a severe budget crunch that could force as many as 190 short-term layoffs at a time when caseloads are likely to spiral upward, the agency's new chief said Tuesday.

In his first public appearance since beginning the job three weeks ago, Peter Digre told the citizen panel that oversees the Department of Children's Services that he would press state and local officials to help make up a $9.5-million shortfall resulting from statewide cuts in the child welfare budget. The money is needed to help keep the department operating until a new budget takes effect July 1.

Digre also told the Commission on Children's Services that his agency, which has been rocked by allegations of mismanagement and of child abuse within the foster care program, has "a long, long way to go" toward curing its problems.

His talk was warmly received by the 15-member panel, which has had a history of contentious relations with Digre's predecessors. Well aware of that history, the new department chief concluded by saying, "All wars with everybody are over. We seek collaboration with all sectors of the community."

The commissioners, appearing relieved, thanked him profusely. "It's a refreshing breath," commissioner Fred Taylor said afterward. Others applauded.

Digre, 46, came to Los Angeles County from Florida, where he was deputy director of a statewide health services agency. He was hired by the Board of Supervisors to replace Elwood Lui, a former appellate judge who was interim manager of the child welfare agency after its previous director resigned.

The department is undergoing a massive reorganization ordered by state officials who threatened to take over the agency if services to children and their families did not improve.

Digre used his time before the commission to outline his priorities for getting the agency back on track.

Much of the discussion was devoted to the budget crisis. Before the panel and in an interview afterward, Digre said he feared that the department would be forced to lay off workers within the next several months only to rehire them in July, when the new state budget takes effect.

The department's budget director, Marilyn Brown, said the layoffs would come in the spring, when the agency's caseload typically rises.

According to Digre, the county has already lost $22.7 million because of the state child welfare cuts, and stands to lose $3 million more because of a state audit that found the county was billing the state for more child welfare cases than it handled.

Digre said he met with officials in Sacramento last week and that they seemed "very open" to restoring the $3 million.

He did not, however, take issue with the state audit. He called it "very appropriate," and said he has found that the department has a severe problem documenting its caseload and keeping records.

"I've seen records on top of desks," he said. "I've seen them under desks. I've seen them in corners of offices. I've seen them in backs of cars."

Digre also said that he would like to streamline the way the department evaluates new cases of child abuse. Currently, he said, a new case may pass through as many as six social workers in an initial 90-day period. He said he wants no more than two workers involved.

Digre also called for improved training for the department's 1,500 social workers and suggested the creation of a university-based training academy. Social workers receive only one week of training, a requirement that Digre called "nothing short of terrifying," given the life-and-death decisions they make.

Digre also said he would like to hire more bilingual social workers, noting that because there are so few, they carry a heavier burden than their colleagues.

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