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Opinion Editorial
Editorial

How to protect L.A. County's children

After lashing out at one another and at county administrators in the wake of critical reporting by The Times on the inadequacy of child protection services, members of the Board of Supervisors realized in the fall of 2010 that the county had so many different agencies and authorities with so many different criteria for tabulating child deaths that they had no way of determining whether things were getting better or worse. They hit upon a solution: Designate a "single entity" to take the lead on child death statistics — and to climb above the stew of other county organizations that all have their own way of tracking, measuring and interpreting child fatalities. The new entity would come up with a protocol for a single set of data. The need was deemed urgent, and county staff were to present a progress report within 30 days.

That's not a unique problem or even an entirely unwarranted solution in large government bureaucracies. A problem is identified that has not been sufficiently dealt with by the current structure, or different agencies meant to deal with different aspects of the same problem fail to coordinate, then move in different directions and end up more interested in protecting their turf than in serving their constituents, in this case the county's thousands of abused and neglected children. A new organization — a single entity — is brought in to bust the bureaucratic boxes and to coordinate efforts.

But if the new agency is not properly managed and supported, it can become just another layer of the same bureaucracy it was meant to bust through. In Los Angeles County, where there are five co-equal county supervisors all trying to act like chief executives, each supervisor tends to become the advocate or protector of one of the competing agencies, so no agency or commission ever gets pared back or eliminated. Instead, they accumulate. It's worth noting that some pieces of the existing pile of child protection agencies, including the Department of Children and Family Services and the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, are among those that were themselves created in past decades specifically to break through previous bureaucratic boxes and piles.

So what happened to the Board of Supervisors' Nov. 3, 2010, directive to report back within 30 days on creating a single entity? Nothing.

That's also typical of Los Angeles County government, where politicians and bureaucrats too often organize their work around headlines, campaigns, turf wars and scandals rather than a strategic plan or a mission statement that carries direct budget implications. Child deaths were big news in 2010, but they soon faded from the headlines and their place was taken by outrages in the Probation Department and, increasingly, the Sheriff's Department, so the directive on a single entity to coordinate child death data, while not affirmatively suspended, was forgotten.

Pressure by this page moved supervisors to remember it in October 2011, and the board adopted yet another motion calling for a report back within 30 days. And following yet another Times inquiry into the report, there was, on Dec. 18, 2012, yet another motion calling for a single entity to coordinate child death data. It was as if the board directives of 2010 and 2011 had never happened.

Then, last year, child deaths were back in the news and the Board of Supervisors created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection to figure out why children who are known to county workers to be especially vulnerable keep dying. In January of this year, the supervisors suspended all work (assuming there was any) on designating a single entity pending the commission's final report.

That report was adopted, in draft form, at the commission's final meeting Thursday.

You've guessed the rest: The commission calls for a single entity, not just to coordinate child death data but to take on the responsibility for, and importantly the authority over, the county's entire child protection mission in order to bust through the bureaucratic boxes that prevent it from making sufficient progress.

The commission correctly perceived that the purview of the Board of Supervisors is too broad, its attention span too short and its expertise too limited to solve the county's most intractable problems. And it's not because of any particular human flaw in the five current supervisors; without a change in structure and attitude, the two new board members to be elected in June or November will be similarly stuck.

Other jurisdictions around the country that have had problems with their child services have resolved them with strong, often controversial but unmistakable leadership from mayors, governors or other chief executives who were directly accountable for their actions and appointments. Los Angeles County government has no such leader, and even after the board reluctantly increased the powers of the chief budget officer and called him a chief executive, it pulled away from him most authority over child protection — at about the same time as it adopted the first directive to create a single entity.

Solutions to the county's problems do not lie solely in org charts. But they do lie in the supervisors' recognition that a five-person board established in the 19th century for a sparsely populated county with more cows than people is inadequate to their 21st century task. They need a clearly stated mission (that they back with budgeting and policy directives), a set of priorities and an entity, a "czar" or something else that can break through not just bureaucratic boxes but the board itself in order to meet society's collective duty to keep children — indeed, all of us — safe.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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