LOCAL

L.A. County leaders consider reforms of child services

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticePoliticsInterior PolicyPension and WelfareZev YaroslavskyMark Ridley-Thomas

Los Angeles County supervisors have begun weighing recommendations to dramatically rework the safety net for tens of thousands of abused and neglected children, including what would be the most significant reorganization of county government since 2007.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection has said a linchpin of a proposed package of reforms is the creation of a new child welfare czar. The executive would have broad powers to move money and people across departmental lines to support a more unified and effective approach to the protection of children, the panel said.

The five-member county board voted to order additional study of some of the commission's recommendations, prior to a possible approval of the proposed changes next month.

Commissioner Andrea Rich said the new office shouldn't just add more bureaucracy and costs atop the child welfare system. "If it becomes that, we should do away with it immediately," she said. "It should act as a knife that cuts through bureaucratic layers."

The commission called on the county's five elected supervisors to clarify the mission and roles of various agencies charged with protecting vulnerable children. That directive should include clear and reliable data gathering and goals to track the success of county departments.

Successful reform of an oft-criticized child protection system will require months, if not years, of investment, reorganization and lobbying for changes in state law by county supervisors, the commission said.

The overhaul could face an uphill battle.

The county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, who might have to surrender some budgeting authority under the proposal, released a report prior to Tuesday's meeting that said the county already tracks statistics regarding the well-being of children. The panel of experts found county departments use different measures of performance.

Fujioka's report also raised financial and legal concerns about some of the panel's recommendations, including more extensive health screening of foster children. Children's advocates say those issues can be addressed if the county makes a commitment to improving medical evaluation for abused and neglected children.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the commission's work represents "a potential breakthrough moment. It not only identified the problems, it provided solutions."

Supervisor Gloria Molina said her greatest responsibility as county supervisor is the protection of children. "I think the board is committed to this kind of reform," she said.

But Philip Browning, the county's director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said he was not aware of any large systems where a child welfare czar has been attempted.

And Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich was cool to the idea of creating a new agency for a child protection overseer.

He also expressed disappointment that the commission did not examine ways that agreements with county employee unions may block needed changes, including moving workers to understaffed areas of the county.

Supervisors Don Knabe and Zev Yaroslavsky had opposed the creation of the blue ribbon commission. They said Tuesday they would review the report, but said it contained little that was new. Yaroslavsky said some of the ideas in the panel's report were "turkeys."

The commission of child welfare experts and community leaders was appointed by the supervisors last

summer after the death of

8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

The boy was found in May with his skull cracked, three ribs broken, and his skin bruised and burned. BB pellets were embedded in his lung and groin, and two teeth were knocked out. County social workers had investigated six reports of abuse but allowed Gabriel to stay with his mother and her boyfriend. Sheriff's deputies separately investigated at least four more reports but did not rescue the boy or cross report the complaints to county social workers.

Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 29, and Isauro Aguirre, 32, each face one count of capital murder with the special circumstance of torture.

Dan Scott, a commissioner and former child abuse expert for the Sheriff's Department, bristled at the criticism the commission has received from some county supervisors.

"I was very disappointed to have these ideas dismissed as turkeys after all the thought and work we put in," Scott said.

Even if some of the commission's recommendation are not new, he said, they should be considered seriously.

"If everyone tells you something needs to be fixed, then maybe it needs to be fixed."

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticePoliticsInterior PolicyPension and WelfareZev YaroslavskyMark Ridley-Thomas
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