CALIFORNIA

L.A. County supervisors ready to tackle child-protection problems

14.6% of L.A. County's children are reported to the county's child abuse hotline by age 5

A new majority on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors say they want to place child welfare back at the center of their agenda this year, including reconsidering a series of reforms that their predecessors refused to authorize last year.

The supervisors have expressed concern that the county has lost a sense of urgency when it comes to improving how officials protect abused and neglected children, especially after a series of deaths of children under their monitoring.

The board majority said they want to look again at recommendations made by a blue-ribbon commission that includes proposals to expand the use of county clinics for medical assessments of abused and neglected children and to appoint a child-welfare "czar" to coordinate services across departmental lines.

They are even considering going beyond the commission's recommendations to significantly increase the number of social workers and finally erase long-standing disparities in the quality of service provided in different regions of the county. Although the supervisors say they won't commit to a specific hiring target, their deliberations will occur at the same time the social workers union is pushing to hire 450 more staffers in 2015 — a proposal that would cost $60 million.

Recently elected Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis are among those saying the additional hiring must be reconsidered. Their predecessors, reluctant to add new costs, had argued that the Department of Children and Family Services needed only to better use the roughly 7,500 employees and $1.5-billion budget it already has.

"I've said all along that the caseloads are so high that it is virtually impossible for social workers to say that they've investigated nearly every possibility in a child's case," Kuehl said.

Kuehl and Solis, who campaigned with financial support from the social workers union, have joined hold-over Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to call for a fresh review of dozens of recommendations introduced a year ago by a blue-ribbon commission appointed in the aftermath of the beating death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

The boy's mother and her boyfriend are facing charges of murder, and officials acknowledge the death followed egregious errors by county social workers, sheriff's deputies and other government agencies.

As a result, county leaders promised to correct widely acknowledged failures throughout a system that touches tens of thousands of youths. According to a study released last month by USC, 14.6% of the county's children are reported to the department's child abuse hotline by the time they reach age 5.

In recent interviews, Supervisor Don Knabe joined Kuehl and Solis to say the county should consider adding more social workers. Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich declined to state their positions on new hiring, but aides to Antonovich said he would be willing to examine the proposal.

"Los Angeles County social workers have caseloads that are among the highest in the nation; they need our support," Solis said. "We need to look at how they're deployed, trained, supervised and equipped. Hiring more social workers is one of the options that needs to be in the mix for consideration."

In the absence of additional workers, large differences in the level of service have developed across the county. Child abuse investigators in Lakewood, for instance, have twice the caseload of workers in Pomona. Overall, the number of social workers has remained relatively flat over the past decade, but the number of investigations has increased by a third.

For workers assigned to place children in foster homes, the work has become more difficult as well. The number of available beds has decreased from 26,865 to 11,362 since 2003 — far outpacing the decrease in the number of foster children.

The county has already pledged to hire additional social workers as part of a labor strike settlement reached last year. However, some of those hired so far have replaced only workers who retired or quit.

"In 2013, we had momentum; in 2014, we lost momentum," Ridley-Thomas said. "So it is my sincere hope that this newly constituted board will see to it that in 2015, reform of the child protection system begins in earnest. Our county's children deserve no less."

Ridley-Thomas complained that the county had not done more to put in place two blue-ribbon commission recommendations that the prior Board of Supervisors did accept: to expand access to a network of clinics for abused and neglected children and to hire a child protection "czar," which the commission described as "the linchpin" in the county's ability to prevent and respond to maltreatment.

Commissioners said the lack of collaboration between social workers, law enforcement and mental health workers was the crux of many problems, and they recommended that a new Office of Child Protection be established with a director to coordinate services.

But the selection process for the new director has been plagued by disagreements over how much authority the new office should have to direct other county departments.

In the meantime, a transition team has been appointed to carry out other accepted commission reforms, although its members have complained that departments have failed to cooperate because of opposition by Knabe, who complained that a "czar" could second-guess work already being done by county departments.

"The No. 1 area of frustration," said Leslie Gilbert Lurie, who co-chaired the blue-ribbon commission and continues that role on the transition team, "is that the supervisors have not instilled that sense of urgency throughout the county establishing the safety needs of children and the recommendations of the committee, and that starts with the fact that it has not been impressive how they have conducted the search for the office of child protection."

Even when the supervisors voted 3 to 2 to allow the transition team to participate in candidate interviews, county officials later told them they would be excluded under orders from Knabe, who then served as chair of the board.

A spokeswoman for Knabe said the new board would reexamine the interviewing process.

After expressing disappointment with the candidates attracted so far, the supervisors decided last month to restart the search with a new executive recruiting firm.

The only person to be publicly identified to be in the running is Michael Nash, the outgoing presiding judge of the county's juvenile court.

Nash has been a persistent critic of Family Services director Philip Browning because foster care placements have recently increased by about 1,700 children or 10% overall — the first increase in 12 years — and services meant to keep families together have declined.

Browning has noted that detentions of children have increased statewide in step with reports of child abuse, and many of the service declines involved programs that did not have well-documented evidence of success.

He said he has focused on improving accountability and education for social workers, including a new yearlong training program for new staffers.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com
Twitter: @gtherolf

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