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Panel: L.A. programs to prevent child abuse in 'state of emergency'

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeDrunk DrivingPension and WelfarePoliticsInterior PolicyLos Angeles County Board of Supervisors

A new report from the blue-ribbon commission on Los Angeles County's safety net for abused and neglected children levels stinging criticism at the Board of Supervisors for a sluggish approach to reform, and declares that the system has fallen into a "state of emergency."

"Nothing short of a complete rethinking about how the county ensures safe and supportive care for abused and at-risk children will lead to the seamless and comprehensive child welfare system that the county has needed for decades," the commissioners wrote in a draft report expected to be approved in a vote Thursday afternoon. 

The members of the commission said the elected Board of Supervisors has responded too slowly and failed to identify a coordinated mission and clear, measurable goals for the child-protection system. 

The commission released its first set of recommendations in December. In its new report, it notes that none of the suggestions were approved and evaluations of their costs or potential benefits haven't been completed. 

"Since then, another 5,000 referrals of child abuse and neglect have been investigated without the benefit of systemic reform," the commissioners wrote. "Each day we wait for reform, 40 more infants are reported as possible victims of abuse and neglect." 

Currently, the commission found, infants sit for hours at social workers' desks or in holding rooms awaiting foster placements. Also, children are often unable to get return phone calls from their social workers and lack a meaningful voice in decisions about their care, the panel said. 

"On our watch, many of Los Angeles County's most vulnerable children are unseen, unheard and unsafe," the commissioners said. 

The county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, also comes in for criticism from the panel, which says a report from his office on the feasibility of the commission's original recommendations is overdue. 

"The commission has requested, but not received, an update on the progress of the analysis," the report said. 

A culture of secrecy and an obsession with civil liability often trumps the best interests of children, the report said. 

"Crucial access to information between appropriate entities, within county government and throughout the community, often is needlessly blocked in the name of confidentiality," the report said. "Problems within the system remain hidden and often uncorrected because of secrecy around decision-making and other recurring failures." 

Expanding on its recommendations in December, the panel's new report calls for the creation of a new "Office of Child Protection," with broad  accountability for the overall effectiveness of child-protection programs.

The office should be led by someone with extensive experience in child welfare, who is empowered to move people and resources across departments, the report said.

The county should improve data collection and use it, not periodic reactions to crises, to establish child welfare policy, the panel said.

The county's relationships with community groups and foster home contractors needs significant improvements, the panel said. Among other things, "performance-based contracting" should be adopted that ties financial rewards to better outcomes for children. 

“In eight months of hearing hundreds of hours of testimony, the commission never heard a single person defend the current child safety system,” the commissioners said.

The commission began its work last summer to improve the county's child welfare system 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.

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

 

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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