The key lines in the final report of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which was released late Friday and comes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, may be two sentences that don't use the words "foster care," "child death," "Dependency Court" or "early intervention." They deal instead with the question of just why a government with vast resources at its disposal can't seem to put them together to protect children from abuse and neglect.
"The problem is not that county leaders and workers do not care," the report says. "The system is simply not structured to translate that caring into effective action."
It is not, in other words, malevolence or ineptitude that stands in the way of the county providing successful child safety programs. It is not just callous or poorly trained child welfare workers, although there may be some, nor is it caseloads that are too high, although indeed they are. Those problems are being handled.
It is instead the sheer scale of county government, its many separate and not-so-interlocking parts, its five-member board with no single person in charge. The problem is that mundane. We can perhaps use the word "banal." No person in county government wants children to come to harm, yet they work in a system that too often allows or even abets it.
The commission is calling on the board to quickly establish an Office of Child Protection with a scope more far-ranging than any that now exists, with power to mandate prevention programs, to move funding across existing departmental lines and to take any other action necessary to establish direct responsibility and accountability for the well-being of children.
It is the right move, but one more easily said than done. There remains a Board of Supervisors with ultimate authority, and it already struggles with too many sedimentary layers of advisory bodies. The proposed Office of Child Protection would have only the authority that the board is willing to relinquish to it. In their final deliberations, some members of the Blue Ribbon Commission pointed out that the county's chief executive officer already has a unit dedicated to transcending departmental boundaries to secure child safety. "But they're not doing it," others responded.
But the fact that the task won't be quite as straightforward as the commission suggests — the fact that supervisors and the candidates running to succeed them may have to reexamine and restructure their bureaucracy to adequately identify children at risk and keep them safe — must not be used as an excuse not to act. Bureaucracy may be banal, but allowing it to prevent county leaders and workers from what they must do and want to do is not much short of evil.