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L.A. County health official's dual roles are questioned

Child welfare agency medical director Dr. Charles Sophy also has a private practice where he works on such reality TV shows as 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.'

September 02, 2011|By Amy Kaufman and Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist and medical director for L.A. County's foster care system who frequently appears in reality television shows.
Dr. Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist and medical director for L.A. County's… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director for Los Angeles County's beleaguered child welfare agency, carries two cellphones in his pocket.

One BlackBerry tethers him to his county job, where he is responsible for the mental health needs of nearly 20,000 foster children. The second — kept in a plastic case adorned with images of dollar bills — is reserved for his Beverly Hills-based private psychiatric practice, where his patients have included Paris Hilton, and for scheduling appearances on television interview and reality shows. Among his recent on-camera sessions was counseling of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" cast member Taylor Armstrong and her husband, Russell, before Russell Armstrong committed suicide Aug. 15.

The two phones, Sophy said, signal his commitment to strictly segregate his public and private worlds. Despite those efforts, the two roles have overlapped in ways that have attracted attention.

Some say the county is fortunate to have a nationally recognized mental health expert on staff and that Sophy has made significant improvements in foster child care. But others argue that he has grown gradually more distracted over the years, and they question his commitment to the $256,000 county post.

"He's a guy who is preoccupied. I think the county comes second. Why is he involved in all this outside work when he has a house that is not in order at DCFS?" asked Aubrey Manual, president of a local foster parent association.

Sophy and the executive team in charge of the Department of Children and Family Services have come under repeated criticism for systemic breakdowns that contributed to the fatalities of children under their supervision. Sophy's unit has been specifically faulted in some of those deaths, and Supervisor Gloria Molina harshly scolded him in a closed-door meeting this year, according to officials familiar with the exchange.

Specifically, the department has been faulted for slow progress implementing a legal settlement that requires it to dramatically improve care for thousands of mentally ill children requiring intensive treatment.

Yet Sophy still enjoys high regard among many in the child welfare community, and he said county officials recently asked him to apply to lead the agency. Even some of the agency's most trenchant critics praise him.

Kim Lewis, the lead plaintiff attorney in the class action against the county, said Sophy has been an effective partner. Furthermore, she said it was important that Sophy is the longest-serving member in the agency's management team, a group notorious for its revolving door.

"I think he is one of the few folks who brings a sense of continuity to the important issues, and I think he has shown himself to care significantly about the issues and the kids," Lewis said. "I think he is an advocate for change."

Sophy, 50, maintains that he gets more out of helping the underprivileged than the rich and famous, pointing to his own background as the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner as evidence of his connection to hard-scrabble life. He earned his medical degree from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, worked as a psychiatrist for the county Department of Mental Health and has been medical director since 2003.

"Honest to God, this is where my heart is," Sophy said in his government office, where the walls are covered with diplomas, children's artwork and photos of his 9-year-old son. "I put it all into perspective. There are many times I go to see my patients in 90210 and I'm like, 'Do you have any idea that I was just in a home where they didn't have dinner?'"

Sophy, who has a personal publicist who promotes him to various news outlets, has devoted a growing portion of his time to his more glamorous endeavors. This year alone, he has appeared on nearly 20 news programs, including 11 appearances on NBC's "Today" show.

In 2007, he took extended lunch breaks from his county job to visit Hilton in jail and meet with sheriff's officials to tell them that the Lynwood lockup was imperiling her mental health. Sophy said the trips were approved by Trish Ploehn, the agency's director at the time.

The same year, Sophy frequently appeared on TV as an expert commentator on the case of Nadya Suleman, the Whittier woman who gave birth to octuplets after treatment by a fertility physician.

Suleman's situation caused numerous calls to the county's child abuse hotline, and department officials say they are strictly barred from speaking about such cases.

Nevertheless, Sophy went on CNN's "Larry King Live" to offer his opinion on Suleman. "I think it's an outrageous number of children," he said.

Sophy said he believed the interview did not pose a conflict of interest, because the department had not initiated a formal investigation of Suleman in L.A. County.

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