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A way forward for L.A. County's child welfare department

June 10, 2013|By Robert Greene
  • Gabriel Fernandez, 8, was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend.
Gabriel Fernandez, 8, was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend.

The killing last month of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale led Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles to demand a state audit of L.A. County’s  Department of Children and Family Services. On its face, the demand appears to make some sense. An outside investigator such as State Auditor Elaine M. Howle might be able to provide some valuable insight into why an agency like DCFS didn’t remove Gabriel from a situation that, in retrospect, looks only too clearly to have been cruel and abusive.

Nor is it the first time DCFS has been accused of ignoring warning signs and leaving a child in a dangerous home where he ultimately died. Maybe Howle can finally, once and for all, get to the bottom of the seemingly intractable problems at DCSF.

But it gets more complicated when you note that Howle will, at the same time, be examining Sacramento County’s child protective services agency at the request of Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks – to see whether that agency improperly took a child from his home.

So which is the real problem? That county child welfare workers are too likely, or not likely enough, to remove a child from a home? Is it perhaps a matter of differing political perspectives? Or are all decisions correct when they happen to work out, and incompetent, outrageous, criminal, when they don’t?

Perhaps Howle can thread the needle by uncovering some basic failure common to child welfare agencies and point the way, finally – again, once and for all – to a clear and careful analysis of when a child should be, and when he or she should not be, removed from a parent’s home.

Even that  prospect appears elusive and illusory, though, when you consider that last year the state auditor completed pretty much the same kind of probe, examining the child welfare agencies in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno and Alameda counties at the request of Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, a Democrat from Fresno. Perea had asked for the audit in the aftermath of the 2008 killing of 10-year-old Seth Ireland.

Los Angeles County initially refused to cooperate. It took, literally, an act of the Legislature to compel the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the Department of Children and Family Services, county lawyers and several other layers of county oversight to disgorge information about the handling of child deaths here. In the end, Howle got the access she required and produced her report. It was scathing – but most of the dysfunction it documented was already well known.

What could a new probe by the state auditor – who, after all, is not an expert in child welfare – discover that she missed last year? It’s true that this requested audit is slightly different – it goes to the question of how decisions are made on whether to pluck a child from a home, instead of how the agency responds to the death of a child who was left in the home – but that’s a distinction without much of a difference. It’s part of the same, long and sad continuum. County workers made a choice, the choice turned out to be wrong, a child was removed from the home and traumatized or left in the home and died, and the public is outraged.

Lawmakers’ desire to get to the bottom of a tragic and agonizing foul-up are understandable, as is their preference that the state auditor does the probing. After all, they are state officials, and Howle works for them.

But there have been so many other investigations, reports, layers of oversight and reorganizations and they have come to nothing. The department has had 17 permanent or temporary directors over the last 25 years. There is a Commission for Children and Families, a Children’s Special Investigative Unit, an Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, the sheriff, the district attorney, task forces that report directly to the Board of Supervisors, panels that bypass the board altogether, a chief executive officer who was for a while placed over the department and then pushed aside. There have been state audits. There have been lawsuits. There has been withering reporting from this newspaper and others. The department, or its leaders, or its front-line child welfare workers, complain that they can’t get anything done without the full backing of the public, and they complain that they can’t get anything done when they’re subjected to intense public scrutiny.

The department seems paralyzed by too many moving parts, too many individuals and agencies at war with each other, pressing their own agendas or ideologies, jockeying for power rather than working for the well-being of children. Every time there is a news story or a pronouncement, managers and child welfare workers turn their attention away from their work to respond, to cooperate, to stonewall, to defend themselves. One social worker describes the situation as being like a mechanic trying to figure out what’s wrong with a customer’s car – while the customer is standing over her, screaming, “Just fix it! Just fix it!”

So if one more state audit holds little promise for solving the department’s problems, are we out of options?

Maybe not.

Last year, after more than a decade of lawsuits and charges about the abuse of jail inmates in Los Angeles County, the supervisors convened a commission and gave it wide-ranging power to examine the jails, the Sheriff’s Department and why the previous layers of oversight – a special counsel, an office of independent review, internal and external examiners – failed to end the problems.

It’s too early to say whether the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence has accomplished what was intended. It’s too early to say the problems have been fixed.

But a controversial undersheriff and four other top members of the brass were forced out. Management has been restructured. A new custody expert has been brought in. There is a new use-of-force manual. And there is a new sense that the Sheriff’s Department is finally being forced to make long-needed changes.

Should there likewise be a commission probe into the Department of Children and Family Services, cutting though the dozens of stacked-up reports, band-aids and layers of oversight that county supervisors have thrown out over the decades? If such a commission could examine the actions of social workers, of county supervisors, of managers and lawyers and committees, without fear of retaliation and without favor to any ideology or interest group, could there be a once-and-for-all fix?

Caution is required. The jails commission was a success in part because of careful planning, buy-in from the supervisors, the aligning of political stars. It’s not clear whether that experience can be repeated – especially so soon after the jails commission did its work.  

Nor can the county convene an all-star panel every year for every problem.

But if the supervisors get on board, establish a commission, set clear goals and then let go of the tiller, one more time, it just might work.

As with the jails commission, there would have to be a public portion of the process, so that people could feel free to testify and so that they could see whether the panel was serious about doing its work. Commissioners would have to operate in the open.

And there would have to be a confidential portion, handled by expert staff, so that they could talk with people who would not or could not come forward in a public process, and so that they could freely exchange thoughts and ideas before laying them before the public body.

A commission would need the clout of well-respected, high-powered experts on children and family issues, on law, on management, on labor, so that the final product could be embraced, with confidence, as the work of the best minds and talents.

They would need money, staffing, full access to information and the full cooperation of the department, county counsel, the Board of Supervisors.

And even then, no report, no solution, would solve every problem in the Department of Children and Family Services once and for all.

But what other option is there? One more state audit can do little. One more marginal layer of oversight, one more change in management, one more chapter in the policy manual gets the department nowhere. The supervisors should consider a commission and craft a clear set of goals. It may be their final opportunity during their tenure to fix a problem that often seems, but simply cannot be, unsolvable.

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