After a year of stalled efforts to address breakdowns in Los Angeles County's child protection system, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted two key recommendations of a blue ribbon commission established in the aftermath of a beating death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy.
In what is believed to be the nation's first program, the board voted unanimously to pair public health nurses with social workers to investigate every allegation of abuse involving children younger than 2, an age group identified as being the most at risk of fatalities from mistreatment.
The public health nurses will help medical and child welfare workers evaluate children and determine whether they are in danger of abuse or need immediate medical attention. Deploying the additional personnel is expected to cost $8 million annually.
Supervisors said they hope the nurses will help connect families with needed child healthcare and keep families together when appropriate. Initially, the nurses will be added to two child welfare offices serving areas in and around South Los Angeles.
Lack of adequate medical evaluations have been tied to some child fatalities in recent years. In 2008, 2-year-old Isabel Garcia starved to death — two months after social workers visited her and wrote that she appeared healthy, despite the toddler's sharp weight loss.
The board also moved forward with a recommendation to ensure that children are taken to specialized county medical clinics for health screenings when a nurse in the field deems it medically necessary. The clinics are equipped with sophisticated equipment and staff trained to detect and document child abuse. To accommodate the increased health screening, the county is spending $2 million on additional clinic staff.
"The time is now to move on the blue ribbon commission's recommendations. The protection and well-being of children in our care should always be top priority," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-sponsored the motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
The bulk of the commission's dozens of recommendations have not been implemented.
The county has yet to hire a new office of child protection director, who would be charged with coordinating services between various county departments and outside agencies.
Once that position is filled, the new child welfare chief will grapple with numerous additional recommendations. They include: proposals to tie contracts for foster family agencies and other outside groups to performance; improving the county's data collection systems so the effects of various program and personnel changes can be tracked accurately; and eliminating what county workers have called a "case management crisis" of backlogged and unresolved child abuse investigations.
When a Lancaster father killed two of his children last month, the family had been the focus of an investigation into abuse allegations that had lingered well past a state-imposed deadline for completing such inquiries.
Insufficient investigation was also determined to have been a factor in the death of Gabriel Fernandez, the Palmdale boy. The boy's mother and her boyfriend are facing charges of murder, and officials acknowledge that the death followed repeated errors in the handling of the case by county social workers, sheriff's deputies and other government agencies.
Supervisor Don Knabe has criticized the blue ribbon commission and the decision to hire a child welfare chief, arguing that the new office will be costly and potentially distract agencies and employees from their duties.
On Tuesday, he pointedly congratulated officials for proposing how to add nurses to work with social workers in the field when infants are involved. "You did this all without the Office of Child Protection," he said.