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Blueprint proposed to boost oversight of child welfare

Responding to recent high-profile deaths and injuries, a special county commission on child welfare is proposing a far-reaching overhaul of the Los Angeles County child protection service.

The plans would impose greater oversight on private foster care agencies and improve coordination among the many agencies who deal with child welfare cases, officials said.

In addition, representatives of the commission drafting reforms are calling on the county to establish a position of child welfare czar empowered to coordinate services between the Department of Children and Family Services and other county agencies involved in child abuse cases, including health services, social services and mental health.

They also propose that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office act as a clearinghouse for child abuse cases, working with the county's 46 law enforcement agencies. The commission said this central coordination is needed because it found that police agencies frequently do not cross-report child abuse complaints with county child welfare officials and fail to properly train officers on how to handle child abuse cases.

David Sanders, a former county child welfare chief who heads the commission, cited the beating death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and recently reported shortcomings among private foster care contractors, key problems the proposed changes will seek to correct.

Gabriel was found last May with his skull cracked, three ribs broken and his skin bruised and burned. He had BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin and two teeth were knocked out. County social workers had investigated six separate reports of abuse but allowed Gabriel to stay with his mother and her boyfriend.

The boy's death sparked widespread outrage and prompted the Board of Supervisors to appoint the commission to develop recommendations.

The commission concluded that reforms were needed not just at the Department of Children and Family Services but at the other agencies that deal with child abuse cases.

"Before any set of recommendations can be effectively implemented, a fundamental change in county structure and culture must occur," a preliminary report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection concluded.

Dozens of children have died of abuse or neglect in recent years despite being under the oversight of the Department of Children and Family Services social workers. In some cases, the social workers assigned to their cases struggled to communicate with other county departments about the child's situation because of management breakdowns and confidentiality rules.

More than 700 changes to the system have been recommended by various experts and panels since 2008. Many were stymied by lack of cooperation between county departments that managed them independently.

It remains unclear whether the Board of Supervisors will accept the commission's new recommendations.

The commission did not estimate the costs of the reforms, but they are expected to be considerable.

The county's child welfare director, Philip Browning, also warned that the price tag of the proposed changes may be high. But Sanders maintains that existing funding sources should be adequate to implement reforms.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' office is drafting motions to move forward on the plan, a spokeswoman said.

One target of reform is expected to be nonprofit, privately contracted agencies that recruit and supervise foster families.

The Times has reported that children placed through those agencies are a third more likely to endure physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Over the last five years, at least four children have died as a result of abuse or neglect in the homes overseen by contracted foster care agencies, the paper found.

Many regulations that are intended to keep children safe under the contracted foster care companies — including a cap on social workers' caseloads and a ban on assigning children to foster parents with certain criminal histories — haven't been consistently enforced, The Times found.

Marilyn Flynn, the dean of USC's School of Social Work and a commission member, said the panel will probably propose changes in the way the county contracts with private foster care agencies. She argues that payments should be tied to improvements made in foster children's lives, not just the number of days they remain with a foster family or in group homes.

There are about 5,000 children living in private foster care in Los Angeles County and 15,000 across the state. Los Angeles County is limited in its oversight because the foster family agencies are licensed and overseen by state regulators.

The Board of Supervisors passed a motion this month asking Sacramento to improve oversight. It also authorized the county's lobbyists to push for legislation that will change privacy rules to allow county workers to be regularly informed about the criminal histories of foster parents and contractors' employees.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said she agrees that more oversight is needed.

One possibility, Mitchell said, is legislation that would allow county officials to regularly review the criminal histories of foster parents and employees of foster agencies.

Will Lightbourne, the state social services chief, has declined to comment about increasing oversight of foster care. His spokesman said a report on possible improvements to the oversight of foster family agencies will be released in October.

The commission is also calling for improved health assessments of children suspected of being abused or neglected, and requiring that public health nurses work with investigators in all cases involving children younger than 1. Under the plan, all children entering the foster care system would be taken through special clinics with staff that would help determine proper care and placement.

The commission is expected to release its final recommendations in April.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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