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Stop Drift in Child Services

July 12, 2002

Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services was created in 1984 from the welfare department so it could better protect abused and neglected children and help them build happier futures. But with upward of 35,000 troubled children in its care, the agency has not yet found its footing--or a director up to the staggering task. Its fourth permanent director, Anita Bock, was dumped by county supervisors this month after two years of struggling with its chronic problems.

The same shameful list of failings has dogged every director: Children languish in foster care twice as long as in other counties before they are adopted or reunited with their parents. Taken from homes because of abuse or neglect, they bounce from placement to placement, often switching schools and therapists. Social workers are overwhelmed by large caseloads and the geography they have to cover, sometimes from Lancaster to San Pedro.

Though Bock is credited with some advances, improving the agency's computer capabilities, for example, the supervisors canned her because they grew tired of hearing what she didn't, couldn't or wouldn't do.

Child welfare agencies elsewhere have made progress, reducing the time that kids spend in foster care and helping them repair their lives while they're there. What would it take to do the same in Los Angeles County?

First, the department needs a strategic plan, not the airy, optimistic pages dotted with color shots of winsome children that Bock passed around. A real plan lays out clear objectives and specifies timetables and milestones. Start with these two goals: Cut the nearly five years that kids average in county care, and get them the psychological, medical and educational help they need closer to their homes.

The county supervisors say they are already collecting resumes, but, given the department's sorry history, filling Bock's job may be as hard as recruiting a new chief executive for Arthur Andersen.

Child welfare turnaround artists do exist. William Bell in New York City and Jess McDonald, who oversees Illinois' child welfare system, are examples. They might be interested in Los Angeles if the supervisors handed them a clear plan with the authority needed to follow it.

Once an honest blueprint is in place, the board needs to take a hard look at the reactive way it has overseen this department in recent years. Supervisors understandably outraged by reports of a baby starved or beaten to death in foster care have sometimes whipsawed directors, derailing efforts to address more widespread, systemic failings. Yet if the department can cut the time that children spend in county care and get them the therapeutic services they need, the odds of another tragedy will be greatly reduced.

If the supervisors begin now to solve this agency's intractable problems, their choice for director won't matter as much. But if the department and the children it cares for continue to drift, litigation and possibly court supervision may be inevitable.

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