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Supervisors Force Out Child Welfare Director

Social services: Board ousts Anita Bock after two years in frustration over pace of reform.

July 04, 2002|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years after she undertook the task of reforming the nation's largest foster care agency, Anita Bock has been forced out of her post as head of Los Angeles County's child welfare department.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday in closed session to instruct the county administrator to negotiate Bock's departure, according to two county sources, but the decision was not announced until she submitted her resignation Wednesday.

Supervisors in recent months had grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress at the agency, publicly criticizing the department's continuing failure to properly staff the child abuse hotline, quickly investigate alleged abuses by workers, streamline one of the country's slowest adoption programs, and help children who grow up in the system prepare for independent adulthood.

"It's pretty self-evident from a number of the things we've been struggling with that we're frustrated with the pace of change," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 382 words Type of Material: Correction
Anita Bock--An article in Thursday's Section A about the resignation of Anita Bock as director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services incorrectly stated historical facts about the agency. Bock was the fourth person to be named permanent director of the agency since it was created in 1984. Her predecessor, Peter Digre, ran the department for 8 1/2 years.
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Bock will stay on until August, then receive a nine-month severance package. The county administrator is recommending Marjorie Kelly, former head of the state's child welfare division, as an interim replacement.

In a news release, Bock said the decision to leave her $182,000-a-year job was her own. She took credit for a decline in the number of foster children entering the system and said she has stabilized the department. "I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished," she said.

Bock had been recruited from Miami, where she had run the largest of the state's 15 welfare divisions--a program currently under fire for losing a foster child, among other problems. She resigned under pressure when a new Republican administration took over in 1999 and found a backlog of child abuse investigations.

She is the third person to lead the Department of Children and Family Services since it was spun off from the county welfare department in the 1990s, itself an effort to stimulate reforms in the problem-plagued foster care system.

The agency is still dealing with some of the same issues as it struggles to protect the county's 35,000 abused and neglected children.

Some child welfare experts say Los Angeles' problems persist in part because of its size and in part because of politics.

Unions, child advocates, a county commission, the board and individual supervisors' staffers all exert considerable pressure on the department leadership, robbing it of necessary autonomy and authority, said John Mattingly, a national child welfare expert with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"At some point the Board of Supervisors needs to make it clear who runs L.A. County's child welfare system, and it can't be the 25 to 30 people who feel they have that authority now," he said.

Indeed, Bock often lamented the rigidity of the county bureaucracy and the growing chasm between her and the advocacy community.

"I have to prioritize. That's my job," Bock said in an interview earlier this year. "It's my job to sift through the hundreds--thousands--of recommendations we have. They want me to say we'll do it all, and I think the one area where I know I have not won fans is saying I can't do it all.

"I have to balance the union with the county with the budget with the staff. I understand that people who are passionate about children want someone to say, "Let's do it.' But then I wouldn't be an effective director. I'd be a yes person."

It was that directness and passion that led the board to hire her on a 4-1 vote in 1999.

They have said they thought Bock's business background--she has master's degrees in business administration and law, not social work--would solve some of the perceived problems of the prior director, who was seen as an idea man who started a number of revolutionary pilot programs but failed to run the shop effectively.

Before she arrived, a number of internal and external audits diagnosed the department as suffering from unfocused, ineffective management, a lack of planning, a siege mentality, overloaded social workers and myriad other fundamental breakdowns.

G. Peter Digre had abruptly resigned as director in 1999 under the pressure of those negative reports and allegations that he had used his influence to keep on the county payroll a political ally and foster mother accused of abusing her wards.

To Bock, a self-described "change agent," taking on the job of reforming the mammoth system was an irresistible challenge.

At heart, she said, her plan was simple: Use statistics rather than emotion to guide decisions, and stay focused by doing constant long-range planning.

She required managers to attend training in the Baldridge management method, which focuses on customer satisfaction and excellence. She began semimonthly staff meetings requiring managers to present key statistics on how their divisions are running. She has required them to write business plans, action plans, budget proposals and detailed reports on how those plans affect the rest of the department.

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