Some L.A. County officials frustrated by delays in child welfare czar search

Supervisor Yaroslavsky says a search firm tasked with hiring a new welfare czar is moving too slowly

Some Los Angeles County officials voiced frustration Tuesday at what they considered to be delays in the search for a new child welfare czar.

The Board of Supervisors agreed in June to create an Office of Child Protection to coordinate efforts by the various agencies responsible for responding to suspected child abuse and other child welfare concerns.

The move was recommended by a blue ribbon commission the board appointed last year to look at changes in the county's child protection system after the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, allegedly at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Grand jury testimony released Monday gave graphic detail on months of torture the boy endured before his death. According to the testimony, reports of suspected abuse were investigated by deputies and social workers on several occasions, but none resulted in Gabriel being removed from the family.

The county hired a search firm two months ago to find a director to head the new child protection office. But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — who is retiring this year because of term limits along with Supervisor Gloria Molina — said at a meeting Tuesday that the firm was operating "too slowly and is responding to too many people."

"My frustration is at the rate we're going, two members of this board are going to leave this board having had six months to approve an Office of Child Protection person and not have him hired," he said.

Yaroslavsky suggested that there might be an intentional attempt to delay the selection until he and Molina are replaced by new board members in December.

Mark Oppenheim, head of the search firm, m/Oppenheim Associates, referred questions about the process to county board Chairman Don Knabe.

Knabe — who had opposed the child protection office as an unnecessary new layer of bureaucracy — said he thought the search firm had been under too much pressure from a transition team the board had put in place to help guide the changes. The team members, Knabe said in an interview, "think they're set up to either handpick this person or run the department."

Knabe also took issue with a detailed set of criteria for the new child protection director that was proposed by the team. It calls for someone with expertise in child safety, "substantial experience working in a political environment," experience working across agencies and influencing legislation and building relationships with "community leaders, government officials and elected leaders."

"They listed all these things the new director should have," Knabe said. "They forgot one, and the last one would be walking on water."

Transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie said the new czar, as the leader of a "transformational process for the protection of children in Los Angeles County," should be an "extraordinary" person.

But she told the board, "We were very clear with the search firm that we want to do nothing to get in the way of … the search. We want to be supportive of the process and be helpful in the process."

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas urged his colleagues not to let the ongoing search for a director stop them from carrying out other recommended changes, such as expanding the system of clinics providing medical care to foster children.

"It only takes a look at the newspaper today and the recounting of the grand jury investigation regarding Gabriel Fernandez to remind us in searing terms why we must do what we are doing," he said.

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