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To protect the children

Replacing the DCFS director won't be enough to resolve the deep-seated problems at L.A. County's foster care agency.

November 21, 2010

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is easing out Trish Ploehn from her post as director of the Department of Children and Family Services. That's a welcome development. Ploehn has too often confused the morale of her employees with the well-being of the children her agency exists to protect. She has resisted public inquiry into shocking deaths, and she has withheld information from those entitled to examine it. For months, she has treated allegations of sloppy social work with tragic consequences as a public relations matter rather than a danger to children. She should go.

Ploehn does have her strengths. A 30-year veteran of the department, she is by all accounts a devoted county employee who has worked hard at her job and who cares deeply about DCFS' mission, even if she does not always execute it well. Her failings are not for want of trying. As such, her impending departure raises questions about the agency's direction going forward. Does it need a broad overhaul, as some suggest, or will a new general manager be enough?

The answer falls somewhere in between. To begin with, the department is not starved for resources. DCFS has an annual budget of $1.8 billion and a staff of more than 7,000. A decade ago, fewer than 3,000 social workers managed about 50,000 foster children. Since then, the number of social workers has increased to about 3,900, while the number of children in the system has declined to about 32,000. (Of those, 18,900 are in foster homes.) And yet, over that same period, even by DCFS' calculations, the number of children who have died as a result of abuse or neglect has remained steady, at about 20 a year, a discouraging trend that suggests an agency that, if not in crisis, is not making headway toward fulfilling its most fundamental responsibility.

Moreover, though child deaths are the most tragic consequence of DCFS ineffectiveness, the county abounds with stories of children left in squalid conditions, inexplicably reunited with dangerous parents rather than remaining in the hands of caring foster parents, or otherwise mistreated. Thousands of children emerge from foster care in this county healthy and bound for productive futures; for too many, however, it remains a perilous system, frightening and mean.

The service that today's DCFS provides is alarmingly uneven. Some of its 18 field offices are well regarded and fully staffed, and appear to be successfully protecting children. Others have vacancies and long backlogs in processing even emergency cases, as well as a toxic combination of burned-out workers and inexperienced ones. In one recent period studied by the county, the West San Fernando Valley regional office processed all of its emergency referrals on time, while the Compton office missed the 60-day deadline in more than 60% of its cases (and that deadline is twice as lenient as in most parts of California, where foster care agencies are expected to handle emergency referrals within 30 days). One likely cause of Compton's inexcusable backlog: Nearly a third of the city's social workers have been on the job for less than two years.

Discipline is similarly spotty, and the county's recent study concluded that directors of the regional offices spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with problem workers, another symptom of mismanagement. The county needs to set clear expectations for its employees, and it needs to fire those who fail.

One response by DCFS leadership to the agency's problems has been to deluge workers with new policies — this year alone, according to an internal county audit, it has cranked out more than 50 emergency response directives. (Union representatives, who have tallied policy revisions and other changes, cite scores more.) They often arrive without any accompanying training. Some duplicate earlier missives while others contradict them. Predictably, the result is confusion and, for many, a sense of being overwhelmed. Churning out policy is no substitute for clarity or sound management.

As criticism of DCFS has mounted, both from the public and from the county supervisors, Ploehn has resisted inquiry and defended her employees. In the tragic case of one young boy who complained of mistreatment at home and threatened suicide to an official at his school, a social worker visited his home but then elected to leave the boy in the care of the adults he said had abused him. He hung himself that night. To date, county sources say no action has been taken against the social worker.

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