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L.A. County officials say laws hinder child welfare reform

A review of computer systems around the country finds potential ways to improve the county's system, but officials say one key option would require revision of laws curbing what data can be shared.

April 03, 2010|By Kim Christensen

A review of computer systems around the country has yielded potential information-sharing fixes that might prevent deaths or injuries in the child-welfare system here, Los Angeles County officials said Friday, but none can be put in place without legislative changes.

Among the likely contenders to replace the county's much-maligned computer system, known as the Family and Children's Index, is a Web-based portal, similar to a search engine, that would allow authorized users to freely exchange information.

But that option, being developed in New York, and others reviewed by county officials could not be implemented without revising laws that restrict what types of information may be shared among child-welfare workers, doctors, schools and others.

"The county is held back by a system that combines aged technology with laws focused more on shielding government from liability than protecting children from abuse or neglect," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wrote Friday to county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, whose office spearheaded the review of 11 systems elsewhere.

The county's child-welfare system -- and those in charge of it -- have come under intense scrutiny in the last two years as deaths among children have come to light.

About 35 children whose families had been investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services have died of abuse or neglect since January 2008, according to records made public under state law. In some cases, social workers missed or ignored clear warning signs or key information.

After being told repeatedly over the years that better communication among child-welfare workers and others might have prevented some of the deaths, supervisors last year approved a plan to revamp the computer system and directed Fujioka to examine options.

In a memo to supervisors this week on the findings, the chief executive said California's Welfare and Institutions Code so limits the data that can be included in the county's computer system that key information is not readily available to those who need it most.

Even taking into account the legal restrictions, however, the county system has not met its potential. Many social workers are reluctant to tap into what data are available, for example, and most county law enforcement agencies don't participate.

Ridley-Thomas called Fujioka's report a "useful initial road map" but said reforms require urgency.

"Investigators still lack rapid access to criminal records, mental health histories or even information on which adults reside in a child's home," Ridley-Thomas said.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) is working with county officials to rewrite the law, according to Ridley-Thomas and Fujioka's memo detailing the review of systems in Pennsylvania, Indiana and New Jersey, among others.

The Department of Children and Family Services participated in the review, Director Trish Ploehn said, "and is strongly in favor of pursuing legislative reform to allow for increased communication between agencies."

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has opposed Ridley-Thomas' proposal to replace the Family and Children's Index, arguing instead for making modest, less-expensive improvements to the system.

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