The race for two seats on the Board of Supervisors has yielded a flood of campaign pledges, but no area of Los Angeles County government has attracted more calls for change than the sometimes failing safety net for abused and neglected children.
The most widely known contenders, Sheila Kuehl, Bobby Shriver and Hilda Solis, would invest millions of dollars in new initiatives. And in separate interviews, each endorsed a proposal to create a child protection czar to coordinate services.
They agree that social workers are overloaded with cases, but reject any imperative to further reduce the number of children in foster care.
FOR THE RECORD:
Child welfare: An article in the May 11 California section about child welfare issues in the campaign for Los Angeles County supervisor identified candidate Juventino "J" Gomez as a former El Monte city councilman and deputy to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. Gomez is a former deputy to Antonovich and current El Monte council member. —
FOR THE RECORD:
Supervisors race: A May 11 California section article about Los Angeles County supervisorial candidates' views on the child welfare system reported that candidate Bobby Shriver was prepared for an interview with a briefing paper titled "What Social Workers Do." After the article was published, Shriver's campaign said it had no record of such a document and provided a copy of a paper titled "What Social Workers Won," outlining recent changes to a collective bargaining contract.
Instead, they would place more emphasis on improving training and resources for those who must decide when to take custody of a child to ensure that they reach the right decision — whatever it may be. Breakdowns in the process have recently led to children being abused or even killed while supposedly being watched by social workers.
In addition, they would focus on ensuring that each social worker's decision to place a child in foster care is made with proper training and resources.
Shriver, one of eight candidates to replace termed-out 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, pledged "1,000%" to bring caseloads that now average about 30 children per worker down to 15 — a proposal that could require tens of millions of dollars in new hiring.
Kuehl, one of his chief opponents, said she too wants more social workers. But she also would invest heavily to help families who live in such deep poverty that they can't adequately provide for their children.
And Solis, who faces no well-funded challengers in the three-candidate field to replace 1st District Supervisor Gloria Molina, said she hoped to greatly expand the number of public health nurses and the use of county clinics to provide specialized medical screenings for children in foster care.
"This would be one of my highest priorities, personally, along with the rollout of the [Affordable Care Act]," Kuehl said.
"If you have any Irish blood at all, this is an issue that grips you," said Shriver, a nephew of former President Kennedy.
"This is a system that has been labeled dysfunctional," Solis said. "If I had to rate it, I would say it's probably a C-minus. There is a lot of room for improvement."
West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, a dark-horse candidate for Yaroslavsky's seat, said he was still studying the issue but would focus on technology improvements to help social workers do their jobs more efficiently.
The other 3rd District candidates are Pamela Conley Ulich, a lawyer and former Malibu mayor; Doug Fay of Santa Monica; Yuval Daniel Kremer of Los Angeles; Rudy Melendez of North Hollywood; and Eric Preven, who describes himself as a county watchdog. None has so far raised enough money to campaign on the same footing as Kuehl, Shriver or even Duran.
Shriver also acknowledged that he's a newcomer to the field of child welfare. When he sat for an interview, an aide prepped him with a simple briefing paper titled "What Social Workers Do."
To make up for that, he has been picking up the phone to have long policy discussions about foster care with experts with a focus on ways the county can rewrite its contracts with foster care contractors to provide better financial incentives to make children's lives better.
Programs in Tennessee, New York and Illinois provide models for so-called performance-based contracting that tie financial rewards with better outcomes for children, he said.
"As kids get better under the current system [in Los Angeles County], providers lose money" because their pay is reduced and progress toward a child's goal sparks no financial reward for the contractor, he said. "That's a really startling fact."
Leslie Starr Heimov, the chief court-appointed legal advocate for children in the county system, said her conversations left her impressed. "I think he seemed really smart and really committed to the issue," she said.
Shriver said he planned to make his inexperience an advantage, allowing him to analyze the system with fresh eyes, free of any baggage stemming from hardened ideologies, jealousies and loyalties.
"Expertise is overrated," he said. "What's underrated is a desire to learn and the ability to attract excellent people, because excellent people follow other excellent people."
One candidate who says she doesn't need more time to study the system is Kuehl. After 14 years in the Legislature, including periods chairing committees responsible for foster care, she enjoys wonkish discussions about the arcane public safety net.
Kuehl promises that her experience, combined with a Harvard law degree, will allow her to cut through the county's large bureaucracy.
"A lot of people take notice when supervisors want to mess in, and I would want to mess in," she said.
She said the county's handling of problem foster care contractors who misspent money and harmed children was unnecessarily slow. County lawyers "have been very conservative about breaking a contract unless they see blood on the floor," she said. "In my opinion, there was plenty of evidence, and it should have happened a lot faster."
Many of the system's current problems, she said, can be traced to bureaucratic divisions between county departments that lead to information breakdowns. She noted that it took a special meeting between the director of health services and the county's child welfare chief before doctors were able to review a child's history to make better assessments of abuse allegations.
"These are the small fixes that make a child safer," she said.
Kuehl, who is viewed as the favorite to earn the endorsement of county employee unions, said she would also invest in additional child protection case workers, but would not commit to a hiring target.
She also sided with the unions in their fight to continue letting experienced employees transfer out of offices where workloads are the highest and most complex, despite the county's desire to keep them where they are needed most.
"It's not right for me to say, 'I don't care if you're really burned out and have been doing this for 25 years, I want you to go to Watts and fix this family.' "
Conley Ulich, in contrast, believes "all Civil Service employees should be willing to go" wherever necessary. Duran agrees, calling the current county rules illogical.
Solis, a former Sacramento lawmaker, congresswoman and secretary of Labor, is opposed by Juventino "J" Gomez, a former El Monte city councilman and deputy to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, and April Saucedo Hood, a Long Beach school district police officer who lives in Pico Rivera.
"I care about the issue deeply and I have already shown a strong commitment in my past legislative record," Solis said, noting that she helped pass state legislation to aid relatives who take in children after social workers remove them from their parents. Her views so far hew closely to the recommendations of the county's Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, including the czar proposal, but she has also grabbed hold of some of the commission's ideas that have attracted less attention and have been criticized by existing board members for not carrying a clear price tag.
She said, for instance, that she likes the idea of pairing a public health nurse with investigating social workers on cases involving very young children. And she also endorsed the commission's proposal to expand the use of the county's specialized clinics with doctors trained to detect child abuse.
And like Kuehl and Shriver, she said she hoped that the county would focus less on specific targets to reduce the number of children in foster care and instead make case-by-case decisions with highly trained workers, improved technology and strengthened programs to help families stay together.
"I would like children to remain with their families if we can find suitable homes — but I emphasize suitable," she said.