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Missteps on child welfare

Children may be poorly served by state and local governments -- but not in the ways the public thinks.

April 09, 2012
  • L.A. County Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka.
L.A. County Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka. ( Los Angeles Times )

The Bureau of State Audits reported in late March on troubling but familiar problems in Los Angeles County's child welfare system: Abuse investigations continue to take longer than the state's standard 30 days to complete. Although the county had a temporary waiver allowing social workers here to take twice as long, there was confusion over the applicable standard, and too many investigations remained untimely even with the extra time. The problem was exacerbated, if not caused, according to the report, by constant churning of leadership in the department and, as a result, by constant changes in marching orders from the top to front-line child welfare workers.

None of that is much of a surprise. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has repeatedly fired directors of the Department of Children and Family Services and changed the oversight structure. It's no wonder that they have had such trouble finding replacements for ousted directors, and no wonder that social workers sometimes don't know which way to turn. The supervisors have now placed Philip Browning in charge of the department, and they hope — and we hope with them — that the instability in leadership is at an end; we also hope that they have sufficient faith in Browning that he can tell them "no" when he needs to without fearing for his job.

Of possibly even greater concern than unmet standards and the leadership shuffle, however, are two items that are not in the audit at all but are closely connected with it and have largely escaped notice.

First, it's important to remember that the Bureau of State Audits originally undertook a probe of four county child welfare systems: Fresno, Alameda and Sacramento, as well as Los Angeles. The report on the other three counties came out in October, and it was noteworthy and deeply troubling for reasons we'll get to in a moment. Why wasn't Los Angeles County included in that report? Because the Board of Supervisors refused to cooperate and flouted subpoenas from the bureau.

It took a lawsuit and ultimately an act of the state Legislature to specifically instruct the county to turn over the subpoenaed documents and to protect it from legal liability. Only then could the audit of Los Angeles County proceed. It is an example of the board's secretiveness on matters involving the public welfare and the supervisors' legal and moral responsibilities to operate in the open.

The second concern involves the 2008 beating death of a 10-year-old Fresno boy and pending legislation about sex offenders. If it's hard to see the connection between those incidents and last month's audit of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, that, in a way, is the point.

The audit in L.A. was part of the original audit ordered in reaction to the killing of Seth Ireland of Fresno by his mother's boyfriend. Should Fresno child welfare workers have known the boy was in danger? Could they have prevented his death? The public directed its outrage at county workers, the child welfare department and, ultimately, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Someone, the public demanded, should do something.

Fresno City Councilman Henry T. Perea— who, it is interesting to note, is the son of a member of the Board of Supervisors — was elected to the state Assembly in 2010 and asked state Auditor Elaine M. Howle to probe county response to reports of child abuse. He initially wanted all counties to be included, but that would be too long and too expensive a task for the audits bureau, so he limited the request to his county and the biggest counties in three different sections of the state.

The first report, covering Fresno, Alameda and Sacramento, was released in October, and it set off a firestorm. Instead of leading with responses to Perea's questions about child abuse investigations, the Bureau of State Audits went off on a tangent and reported on how well the state Department of Social Services checks names on the Department of Justice's Sex and Arson Registry — even though the Seth Ireland case and Perea's audit request had nothing to do with sex offenders. The bureau reported more than 1,000 matches between addresses on that registry and addresses of "licensed facilities." Because it was an audit of child welfare, the report left the impression that those facilities were foster homes and that the state had housed abused and neglected children with 1,000 sex offenders. Web headlines were immediate: State officials placed 1,000 foster children in homes with sex offenders! And the public reaction was swift as well: Government officials, government programs and child welfare workers are worse than incompetent.

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