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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

When the Board of Supervisors hired him to lead their child support program, Browning improved customer service, and collections increased 36%, to more than $500 million. Later, as the county's welfare chief, he fixed the most error-plagued food stamp program in the nation and brought it into federal compliance.

His resume portrayed him as a pragmatic administrator, but he had no experience in child protection services, leading some to worry when he was appointed to his latest job.

But Browning said his life experience gave him a visceral insight into the kind of family breakdowns at the center of the agency's work.

When his first wife's brother was murdered by her sister-in-law in the 1970s, he and his wife obtained social workers' approval to raise their two children. "We sat around a kitchen table like people do all the time, and they didn't have a place to go," Browning said.

His wife quit work, they added to their house, and they facilitated monthly visits to the children's mother in prison. "Most of the people who provide care for children in our system are relative caregivers, and I know what they go through," he said.

As the department's leader, his management style has been marked mostly by emphasizing the use of data to track performance and cautious decision-making as the agency implements its first comprehensive reform plan in a decade.

To help solve one of the department's central problems — poor child abuse investigations — he is promising to win pay increases for his most skilled employees, as well as the best technology and management support.

"I'd like those workers to be the Marines of the department — the best and the brightest," he said.

The orders for the workers have also changed as the department stresses child safety and eases its emphasis on keeping children with their families. Over the past year, the number of foster children has grown by 800, to 19,100.

"I take extreme issue with that," said Michael Nash, presiding judge of Los Angeles County's Juvenile Court. "Safety and keeping kids with families are not mutually exclusive.

"The number of kids in our system is the highest it's been for years, and with shrinking court resources, it's very difficult for us to keep up with the flow. This becomes a black hole for many of those kids."

Browning pursues his politically perilous agenda under conditions that might be more difficult than his predecessors'. Following the Board of Supervisors determination that Fujioka had poorly managed the department, he was formally relieved of those duties. The department was ordered to report directly to the county's five elected leaders.

"I spend more time with the board here than I did cumulatively in all of the previous 10 years at the county," Browning said.

"This is a Tuesday to Tuesday job," he said in reference to the board's weekly meeting. "That's the nature of people in this position. They don't last very long."

During a recent visit to New York City to study reforms there, he noted that the system's recently departed chief reported to a single strong mayor and had seven years on the job.

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