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First the L.A. jails, now foster care

A strong commission might be the last, best hope for DCFS. It could ensure the supervisors' legacy.

June 13, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • Relatives of Gabriel Fernandez, 8, who was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend, want L.A. County to take child abuse more seriously. Above: Fernandez in an undated family photograph.
Relatives of Gabriel Fernandez, 8, who was allegedly killed by his mother… (Family photo )

Los Angeles County Supervisors Gloria Molina, Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael D. Antonovich will be termed out of office next year. Don Knabe will follow two years later. They will leave to their successors the twin challenges they have faced during their tenure: How to break a cycle of injustice and dysfunction to meet the human needs of society's castoffs — the poor, the addicted, the imprisoned, the homeless. And how to reshape county government to meet those needs efficiently and wisely, and to be sure they are solving problems and not exacerbating them.

County supervisors: A June 13 editorial said that Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, among others, will be termed out of office next year. Antonovich will leave office in 2016.

These are perhaps the most onerous tasks in government. The current supervisors have sometimes risen to the challenge, and sometimes fallen short.

One of their best gifts to the people of the county and to their successors was the extraordinary Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence that was convened and that did its work last year. Say what you will about how long it took the board to muster the political will to face this task and to give up a measure of its power and resources to the panel, the bottom line is that it did it. As a result, a controversial undersheriff and four other top members of the Sheriff's Department brass were forced out. Management has been restructured. There is a new use-of-force manual. It's too early to say whether the commission has accomplished all that was intended, but there is a new sense that the department is finally being compelled to make long-needed changes.

Good for the supervisors. But their jobs are not over yet. The death last month of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez after repeated warning signs were missed by child welfare workers in the Department of Children and Family Services was merely the latest reminder of the dysfunction that has long defined that troubled department.

Can anything be done? There have been so many investigations, reports and reorganizations over the years that have come to nothing. The department has had 17 permanent or temporary directors in 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. There are task forces that report to the Board of Supervisors, panels that bypass the board, a chief executive officer who was placed over the department and then pushed aside. There have been audits. There have been lawsuits. There has been withering reporting from this newspaper and others about children who have been left in homes where they ultimately died, and other children who were taken improperly from their families.

The department seems paralyzed by too many moving parts, too many individuals and agencies at war with one another, 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, 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!"

But there is something more the Board of Supervisors could do. Members could relinquish the ideologies, the jealousies, the loyalties that have resulted until now in changes in dribs and drabs. They could convene a commission with sweeping investigative power over the department, modeled on the jails commission, and give it the time, the money, the authority and the political backup it needs to probe and recommend an overhaul of the department. Such a commission would need to set clear goals and would have to be assured of the full cooperation of the department if it is to cut through the dozens of stacked-up reports, Band-Aids and layers of oversight that the supervisors have amassed over the decades.

It is not clear whether the experience of the jails commission can be repeated. But Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has proposed trying, and his colleagues will take up his motion in the next week or two. It is scary — because of the size of the task it would take on and because of the hundreds of ways in which a process of this type could go wrong. But the alternative is scarier, and it's an alternative that the county and its people have been living with for decades. The supervisors should see this as the last, best and final opportunity to leave behind a county child welfare system that works, or at least one that is on the road to improvement.

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