The new chief deputy of the county's child welfare agency on Friday pledged a complete review of the placement of children with foster family agencies after the death earlier this month of a child whose care was overseen by one of those organizations.
Walt Kelly, who began his assignment as the Department of Children and Family Services' interim chief deputy last week, said in an interview that the review would cover the way children are placed through the county's foster care system.
"We will do it in a fact-finding approach, not fault-finding, but will let the chips fall where they may," Kelly said.
Kelly said the review was sparked by the death of Gilbreania Wallace, allegedly at the hands of a foster mother who was monitored by a private agency called Grace Home for Waiting Children. Gilbreania was the second child to die while in the care of a Grace Home foster home in the last four months, and Doris Jean Bennett, who is charged with her murder, had been investigated in connection with several other incidents.
Those incidents included injuries to two young foster children in her care. Both suffered broken limbs, but Bennett said those injuries were accidental, and investigators concluded she was not to blame. A third infant was brought to the hospital with injuries so severe he remains comatose. In that case, officials say that the injuries apparently occurred before the child was in Bennett's care.
Bennett has pleaded not guilty to Gilbreania's murder.
Also on Friday, the county official in charge of monitoring foster care groups said Bennett's apparent pattern of problems may have slipped the agency's notice because her records might not have been put into the computer system.
Gene Gilden said the system automatically notes patterns of reported problems among some foster parents and flags them for further review. But, she said, because her unit's budget was cut last year, she lost the four clerks who entered such data and a backlog piled up.
That backlog has been cleared with new staff, Gilden said, but the damage may have been done. "There's no excuse here," she said. "We had a system that worked on previous cases. It didn't work on this one."
With protesters Friday calling for a state probe and a blue-ribbon commission to review the agency, Gilbreania's death has rocked one of the county's largest and most troubled agencies as it was already undergoing a major transition.
The agency's longtime and controversial director, Peter Digre, abruptly resigned in April and will leave June 30. As the Board of Supervisors searches for Digre's permanent replacement, it has appointed Kelly to act as the interim second in command. He will be joined July 1 by Sandra Davis, another county veteran who currently works in the chief administrative office and will become the agency's interim director.
Kelly has hit the ground running, calling for a former state Department of Social Services official to act as a consultant and to reevaluate the way the agency handles family issues, as well as ordering the review of foster care.
On Friday, protesters marched outside Department of Children and Family Services offices just west of downtown Los Angeles, castigating the agency for the death of Gilbreania and other children in foster care.
Najee Ali, a spokesman for the families of two recently slain foster children, demanded a probe of the most recent death and of the relationship between the agency and Grace Home, which was founded by an agency official and is now run by two other former agency administrators.
"We believe there is corruption going on in the department," Ali said. Noting that Gilbreania's grandmother says she complained to social workers that her granddaughter was being abused, he added: "Gilbreania did not have to die. She died because of bureaucracy and a system that is negligent."
Debra Reid, whose 9-year-old son Jonathan died in foster care two years ago, called for a panel modeled on the Christopher Commission to examine the agency and recommend changes.
The protesters also demanded the closure of Grace Home. Since the first foster child died there April 1, the county has been auditing the agency. Gilden said Friday that a second review in the wake of Gilbreania's death should be complete by the end of next week and sanctions against Grace Home--ranging from changes in procedures to withdrawing all county foster children--would then be adopted.
Grace Home officials could not be reached for comment Friday.