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Commission to begin sweeping reform effort in child welfare

A blue-ribbon panel tasked with examining L.A. County's embattled child welfare agency begins work this week on finding ways to stem persistent cases of child abuse and deaths.

July 29, 2013|By Seema Mehta

A blue-ribbon commission tasked with examining Los Angeles County's embattled child welfare agency begins work this week on a sweeping reform effort that officials hope can stem persistent cases of child abuse and deaths.

Much of the panel's focus has been on fixing the troubled Department of Child and Family Services. But county political leaders, child welfare managers and commission appointees say the review will include the role law enforcement, school districts and county public health and mental health agencies have played in failing to protect children in abuse cases.

"This approach has never been taken before, and it's overdue," said Mark Ridley-Thomas, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "There's not a lot of appetite for philosophical debate.... This commission ought to be very, very bottom-line about what does it take to design a system that maximizes the safety of these youngsters who are at risk."

The county Board of Supervisors voted to form the commission in June after the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale. The boy's mother and her boyfriend have been charged with torture and murder in the death, which came after repeated reports to investigators of possible neglect and abuse.

Child welfare advocates said they hope the panel focuses on the needs of the tens of thousands of children in the system, and not just cases that have made headlines.

"To only consider childhood deaths would really neglect a bigger opportunity to change some of the issues that are pervasive in the system and hurting children every day," said Janis Spire, president of the Alliance for Children's Rights.

Spire said areas needing careful attention include group foster homes that effectively function as businesses, stricter rules on prescribing psychotropic drugs to foster youths and providing more support for relatives who are caregivers to foster children.

Commission members include Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work, retired judges Terry Friedman and Dickran Tevrizian, and David Sanders, who ran the county's child protection agency from 2003 to 2006.

Sanders said the panel must determine how many children have been seriously injured because of abuse or neglect and create a coordinated, multi-agency reform plan that includes specific recommendations to improve child safety.

Critics have said the commission members don't include representatives of families trying to navigate the child welfare system.

"I think they are continuing to appoint insiders as opposed to independent citizens like parents, grandparents and other who have experience dealing with this department," said Denise Paz, a mother whose children were placed in foster care and who testified on the topic at last week's county board meeting. "Please consider appointing … representatives that are true representatives."

The commission is scheduled to hold its first public session Thursday at the downtown county Hall of Administration and present a final report around the end of the year.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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