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L.A. County chief executive moves to broaden inquiry into child protective services

The head of the Office of Independent Review may be tapped to audit the internal affairs unit of Children and Family Services.

August 05, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County Chief Executive William T Fujioka is preparing to recommend a probe of the Department of Children and Family Services' internal affairs unit, county officials said.

Fujioka, concerned that the internal affairs unit of the child protective services agency may not have conducted its work swiftly and thoroughly, is drafting a recommendation that the disciplinary unit be reviewed by Michael Gennaco, who leads the county Office of Independent Review, officials said.

The Office of Independent Review recently conducted a similar inquiry into the county Probation Department's internal affairs unit and produced a report that found that at least 31 sworn employees who committed misconduct and abuse would probably escape discipline.

Supervisor Gloria Molina's spokeswoman, Roxane Marquez, said her office was supportive of an investigation into the child services department. Representatives for three other supervisors declined to comment. Nishith Bhatt, department spokesman, also declined to comment.

"There is a full-court press underway to make things right in DCFS," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "The concept of having Mr. Gennaco play a role is an effort to bring about necessary accountability and greater child protection."

Elizabeth Brennan, spokeswoman for SEIU 721, which represents the department's social workers, said the union also has complaints that she hopes Gennaco will review. "The internal affairs process is inefficient, and the time period between an incident and disciplinary outcome can take years. That leaves a worker in a lurch for too long."

The internal affairs unit underwent extensive personnel changes last year after Director Trish Ploehn acknowledged a significant backlog of cases. At the time, she pledged to add staff and ensure that disciplinary recommendations were processed in a timely manner.

Since then, dozens of social workers have been placed on desk duty following cases in which error was suspected. Many were later terminated or suspended.

Social worker error has been a recurrent theme in a series of cases involving children who died of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of the department, and Ploehn has acknowledged that errors might have contributed to some of the fatalities.

Meanwhile, Fujioka is already working to implement supervisors' order this week to hire an auditor to take a broad look at the agency's management and its cooperation with other departments that serve abused and neglected children.

Next week, supervisors will consider a motion that would add the county's special child death investigator to the audit. The investigator, Rosemarie Belda, was appointed last year to review child death cases and report systemic issues that the department should address.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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