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Editorial

Guarding child welfare

For decades, child welfare programs swung back and forth, depending on the latest outrage. The county Department of Children and Family Services needs a permanent leader who will stand up to the Board of Supervisors.

August 08, 2011

It starts with the death of a child. There is no event more tragic than the death of an innocent due to an adult's abuse or neglect. Now add government — too blind to the needs of its most vulnerable charges, perhaps, or too prone to snatch children from their homes and too unwilling or too clueless to help troubled families. The final ingredient: Public outrage and demands for change.

For decades, those were the factors that determined child welfare policy. High-profile cases of abuse at the hands of violent or addicted parents resulted in panic and waves of removals, supposedly in the interests of child safety. Abuse in foster homes led officials to send children the other way, back to their families. Instead of a ladder leading upward, child welfare programs seemed to operate like a pendulum, swinging back and forth depending on the latest outrage. Instead of progress, child welfare advocates faced the depressingly perpetual: abuse and neglect of children; the destructive cold war between politicians and bureaucrats; lack of adequate funding; policy changes spurred by child deaths rather than hard data.

But progress is real. Studies that follow children who were kept with their families or placed with relatives show that they do better in school, have fewer run-ins with the law and have better prospects for the future than their counterparts removed to foster care.

Los Angeles County now has the fewest children in foster care in years, but that by itself doesn't mean the county is doing the best it can. For the Department of Children and Family Services to do its work, it needs support and guidance — and breathing room — from the Board of Supervisors. Instead, the board forced out Trish Ploehn as department director in December, and has since then run through Antonia Jimenez and now Jackie Contreras. In May the board, demonstrating its inability to distinguish between management and oversight, took direct control of the department from county Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka.

Now supervisors have appointed county welfare chief Philip L. Browning to temporarily lead the department. It's a good move; Browning is a well-regarded administrator. But what the department really needs, and soon, is a permanent leader who will stand up to the supervisors and not allow them to make panic, rather than progress, the key factor in department decision-making.

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