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Citizen's commission to investigate Dept. of Family Services

Abusive BehaviorChild AbuseMark Ridley-ThomasLos Angeles Police DepartmentZev YaroslavskyRodney KingDon Knabe

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a citizens' blue ribbon commission to propose reforms in the county's troubled child welfare agency.

The commission, with two members appointed by each of the five supervisors, will be tasked with reviewing past attempts at reforms and coming to the board with a set of recommendations by the end of 2013.

The commission will also have authority to review other agencies that deal with child welfare, including law enforcement and health service providers.

The move was prompted by the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in May. The Palmdale boy’s mother and her boyfriend have been charged with torture and murder in his death, which was first publicly disclosed in a Times report.

The county’s Department of Children and Family Services had conducted six prior child abuse investigations into Fernandez’s family, but had not removed him from the home.

Fernandez’s death was the latest in a series of high-profile cases involving the deaths of children who had come in contact with the county’s foster care system. The county agency has also come under scrutiny recently over its management of a contract with a foster care provider accused of financial improprieties and child abuse at the hands of staff and foster parents.

Board chair Mark Ridley-Thomas said the department needs a fresh set of eyes.

"It is urgent for us to address this issue anew. These children, their families, our community deserve no less," he said. "We have tried, but our attempts have not been good enough."

Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe opposed the commission, saying that the county had already received hundreds of recommendations from different entities for reforming DCFS, and department director Philip Browning needs time to implement them.

"I for one think it's too soon to declare this attempt at reform a failure," Knabe said, referring to a strategic plan developed nine months ago. "The department gets pulled in 99 different directions every time there is a public relations crisis."

Yaroslavsky pointed out that unlike the sheriff's department, which is headed by an elected sheriff who does not report to the board, DCFS is directly under the control of the supervisors.

Browning said he hoped the commission would follow a similar model of to Christopher Commission convened to study reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beating.

"We need all the support we can get, and we'll certainly work with the blue ribbon commission to the best of our ability," he said.

It has not yet been determined how much access commission members will have to internal DCFS documents, including confidential case files. Browning said he would support giving commission members access to the files, provding they pass a background check and agree not to share confidential information. But the question could raise legal issues.

Ridley-Thomas said he thought the commissioners could still do "very, very substantive work" even without access specific case files.

 

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Twitter: @sewella

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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