Call it the art of letting go. In agreeing Tuesday to create a new Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection, the Board of Supervisors in effect acknowledged that its five members can't meet their responsibility to protect children at risk of abuse or neglect — not without the help of a more independent and more focused oversight agency.
Ideally, the new office will coordinate the work of more than a dozen county departments, including mental health, the district attorney, child support services, community development and others, all of which have particular roles in protecting children but none of which now takes responsibility for ensuring that their work fits together in a rational, productive and efficient way.
The supervisors have argued for years that it is they who are charged with that kind of coordination and jurisdictional silo-busting, and they have been dead set against surrendering or sharing any of that authority. But Los Angeles County and its challenges are too vast and the supervisors' responsibilities too disparate for them to provide a constant focus on an integrated child welfare network. The result has been repeated tragedies, frustrations and emotion-based decision-making.
In advocating for the new office, Supervisor Gloria Molina suggested that a similar effort might be appropriate for the county's mission to provide mental health services — and she may be correct. It might also be appropriate for dealing with homelessness, poverty and any one of a number of issues. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The pathway to creating this one new office remains long and difficult, and care must be taken to ensure that it eliminates rather than enhances needless bureaucracy.
The process that led to this week's extraordinary and welcome action began with the death more than a year ago of a young boy in Palmdale after county workers apparently missed signs of abuse. But the board's action is not a reform or even a critique of the Department of Children and Family Services, which has made changes and is now operating under a strategic plan closely monitored by the supervisors. It is rather a recognition that county resources and responsibilities go far beyond that one department, and that up to this point it has failed to adequately marshal those resources or meet that responsibility.
Molina, one of two supervisors soon to be termed out after more than 20 years on the board, sounded Tuesday like an energized newcomer, advocating for creativity and new thinking. The other, Zev Yaroslavsky, was wary but acknowledged that "it's worth a shot." Both are on to something. The county should proceed with optimism — and with eyes open.