Head of L.A. County's child protective services agency to retire in early 2017

Philip L. Browning, the director of Los Angeles County’s child protective services agency and a veteran of county government, announced Wednesday that he is retiring early next year, capping a career in which he brought stability to a department plagued by high leadership turnover.

Browning, 70, said he recently came to the decision to retire and noted that he is the second-longest serving director for the Department of Children and Family Services. 

On a trip to Cuba last month with friends, he said he realized that he was the sole person in the group still in the workforce.

“I thought it is time to retire and let someone else continue the progress we’ve made,” he said in an interview late Wednesday, adding that more than 2,000 social workers had been hired in his five years at the helm. His last day is Jan. 31, 2017.

He hopes his legacy will be the start of the transformation of the department, but added: “The thousands of social workers who do the work every day deserve the credit.”

After a term as the interim director, Browning permanently assumed the department’s helm in 2012 amid a turbulent period.

The agency had cycled through three directors in nine months. At the time, the department faced significant scrutiny from a Times investigation that revealed that more than 70 children had died since 2008 of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of social workers. 

Browning said he wanted to streamline and revamp the sprawling bureaucracy, which oversees more than 19,000 foster children.

“The goal is to change the culture,” Browning told The Times in 2013. “What I would like to see is for the worker to be so proud of what he’s doing that he tells his next-door neighbor where he works, which is not the case right now.”

Browning said that no previous job in public service had prepared him for the demands of the post.

In a brief letter issued to DCFS staff Wednesday, Browning summarized some of the achievements during his tenure: the first strategic plan in a decade and an online policy manual that replaced its 6,000-page predecessor. More social workers also helped “drastically” reduce caseloads, and added technology improved performance, he said.

“Social workers now have iPhones instead of flip phones ... and offices have received over 1,000 new printers to speed up their work so they can spend more time with families and children,” he said.

Despite strong efforts at reform, Browning, like his predecessors, has been plagued by a handful of high-profile child deaths, including one that led to four social workers being criminally prosecuted.

In 2013, paramedics responded to the Antelope Valley home of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and found the boy with a cracked skull, broken ribs, and skin pocked by bruises and burns. The boy died two days later, and court papers revealed grim details about alleged abuse.

Records showed that DCFS left Gabriel in the home despite six investigations into abuse involving his mother. Four social workers were charged with abuse and falsifying public records.

In August, 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar was found dead in an Echo Park closet; he weighed just 34 pounds, according to records obtained by The Times. The boy’s mother was charged with murder and child abuse.

A blue-ribbon commission convened after Gabriel’s death led to the creation of the county’s Office of Child Protection. Michel Nash, a former judge and frequent critic of Browning’s policies, was selected to lead that office. Yonatan’s death prompted county supervisors to unanimously call for a review of the tools that measure children’s risk of abuse.

Browning said child deaths were especially challenging.

“My view was we need to be as transparent as possible,” he said, describing honesty as a path to reform and progress. “We have to own up to our own mistakes.” 

Before arriving in Los Angeles, Browning achieved success during stints in Alabama and Washington, D.C.

In Washington, Browning led highly regarded improvements to child support collections during a time when that city had the highest child poverty rate in America. His performance there drew the attention of leaders in L.A. County, where he led the Department of Public Social Services before moving to the county’s child welfare agency.

Supervisor Hilda L. Solis thanked Browning in a statement and said the five-member Board of Supervisors aimed “to find a thoughtful and accountable leader” to fill the position.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno.

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