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For L.A. County's child protective services agency, change is slow

It's been a year since Philip Browning agreed to lead the troubled Los Angeles County agency. He expresses frustration with how it's going so far.

February 24, 2013|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • Philip Browning, right, is director of the Los Angeles County child protective services agency. He's sought to change the agency's culture but says progress has been slower than he'd like.
Philip Browning, right, is director of the Los Angeles County child protective… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

For years, the top director of Los Angeles County's child protective services agency sat in an office hidden behind an unmarked, locked door.

When current director Philip Browning arrived, he made an early decision to use a doorstop to prop it open. And he publicly posted his own name and picture as well as those of his managers, prompting protests by some who feared for their safety.

"The goal is to change the culture," Browning said, acknowledging the embarrassment that some feel at an agency shamed by repeated failures that have allowed at-risk children to die. "What I would like to see is for the worker to be so proud of what he's doing that he tells his next-door neighbor where he works, which is not the case right now."

Browning, 66, who rises at 4:15 a.m. to run five miles before work, is attempting to revive one of the most troubled public agencies in Southern California.

It's been a year since he agreed — somewhat reluctantly — to permanently lead Los Angeles County's long-troubled agency, and many people are still withholding judgment on his performance.

"I have never seen him take a criticism or disagreement personally," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, chief executive of Community Coalition, an agency in South Los Angeles that advocates for more support for relative caregivers. "He's always been able to keep the conversation about the work and try to apply the energy to solve problems."

Browning is disappointed, however, in the slow progress to improve the agency's 6,800 employees who operate in a byzantine bureaucracy that investigates 160,000 annual child abuse complaints and oversees more than 19,000 foster children.

"I'd give myself a C, if not lower. I have not been able to perform the way I hoped," he said in his Alabama drawl following a fresh wave of miserable news.

In recent weeks, Browning has been forced to answer questions about two young children who were allegedly tortured by a Palmdale woman who adopted them from foster care and later bound their hands behind their backs with zip ties and beat them with electrical cords and a hammer, authorities said.

Browning acknowledged his social workers approved the adoption following shoddy casework.

Then came the leak to The Times of an internal county report that offered a top-to-bottom indictment of the department's stifling policies and inept workforce.

The situation, investigators said, was akin to "the blind leading the blind." In the overwhelming majority of child fatality cases reviewed, they said the department's failures significantly contributed to the deaths.

The poor casework involving the Palmdale children and the problems described in the internal report both occurred when the department was under the leadership of former director Trish Ploehn and the county's chief executive, William T Fujioka.

Ploehn had been a defender of the department and, with Fujioka, took a combative approach to press reports. Their tactics drew widespread complaints from the Board of Supervisors and members of the public that they were withholding information about problems.

Browning has seemed eager to show he's taking a different approach, answering questions about the agency's poor performance.

"There are no simple solutions. If there were, they would already be implemented, but you can't fix things if nobody knows about them," Browning said. "It's always easier to do things behind closed doors, but frankly that usually comes back to bite you. There are no secrets in this department."

For that approach, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has called Browning "the best turnaround artist in public administration."

Browning achieved success over a career that began in Alabama before leading to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Andy Hornsby, who led Alabama's public assistance and social services programs when Browning held key posts, said Browning's quiet demeanor masked his toughness.

"He did not have the luxury of trying to tolerate poor performers," Hornsby said. "I had a political appointee who I needed to run off. I put him under Philip and it worked pretty fast."

Browning, a longtime Navy reservist who recently retired as a lieutenant commander, often saw his military bearing pay off.

"Whenever I went into any area where he was in charge, it was immaculate," said J. Gary Cooper, another former Alabama social services chief.

"During those days, of course, poverty just really persisted and many people looked down on people who took food stamps and were on welfare. Some of the employees shared that view and did not treat them well, but Philip had his people well trained, and that earned my respect for him."

In Washington, Browning led highly regarded improvements to child support collections during a time when that city had the highest child poverty rate in America. That drew the attention of Los Angeles County, where an even deeper crisis had taken hold.

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