Editorial

Here we go again at L.A. County's child welfare department

In his long career in public employment, Los Angeles County child welfare chief Philip L. Browning told the Board of Supervisors one day in 2013, “I’ve never turned down any ‘help’ and I don’t intend to today.” Browning went on to talk about all the “help” that he and his many predecessors in that politically hazardous position had been offered. Despite his proficiency in county diplomacy, it was fairly clear from his tone that Browning was using the word “help” as though it ought to be written in quotes — the implication being that what might seem like help to those offering it could look more like distraction and interference to those on the receiving end.

The occasion was the board’s debate over whether to establish a Blue-Ribbon Commission on Child Protection to help the county figure out what went wrong in the series of events that led to the horrendous abuse and ultimate death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale and to ensure that similar breakdowns did not occur again.

During the debate, then-Supervisor Don Knabe correctly pointed out that the county already had accumulated a stack of reports on the department’s failings. Where Knabe seemed wrong — but time will tell — was in his belief that little of value could come out of a fresh look.

The point of the Blue Ribbon Commission was to take an entirely new approach by looking not just at social workers at the Department of Children and Family Services but at the child protection efforts throughout the vast county bureaucracy, including the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff and the district attorney. For example, how well do sheriff’s deputies perform when responding to reports of child abuse?

A divided board voted to establish the commission, which came back with a searing report that placed much of the blame for the insular and uncoordinated county response to child welfare problems on the supervisors themselves. The board responded with several policy changes and established an Office of Child Protection to monitor ongoing reform efforts and generally keep things on track.

Browning moved forward independently of the commission’s “help” by pushing for better, more demanding training of social workers and funding to update technology — with smartphones, for example — so that social workers finally had at their disposal the same kind of instantaneous communication that has long been in the hands of the average middle school student.

The department also went on a hiring binge to reduce caseloads, although labor and management will argue over whether the hiring was the result of strong leadership or a two-day strike by frustrated social workers who were desperate to bring attention to their plight.

Browning previously had been happy and successful as director of a different county department and moved to DCFS in 2011 only reluctantly, on the promise that the gig would be “temporary” while the board looked for a permanent leader. No new leader was hired.

Now Browning is retiring, and the board must finally get on with finding his successor. But that search begins under the very long shadow still cast by Gabriel’s death more than three years ago.

The Times reported on Jan. 1 that in addition to four social workers who had been fired and are now facing criminal charges for alleged failures in the Gabriel case, sheriff’s deputies also had been disciplined for apparently brushing aside claims of abuse.

Of course it would be helpful for the public to know exactly which deputies were disciplined and for what, but some ill-considered state laws prevent such disclosure.

What the public also ought to know — and what the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Jim McDonnell should be prepared to explain — is whether the problem of deputy inaction in child abuse cases still exists, or whether it has already been solved by implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations on just this subject that were crafted by commission member Dan Scott. If not, what’s the holdup?

The same approach is needed for each of the problems cited by the commission and the recommendations it put forward for fixing them. Have the problems been addressed? Have the solutions been implemented? Are they working? The Board of Supervisors is constantly tempted to reorder its child protection priorities in response to horrendous and well-publicized individual cases instead of a more comprehensive assessment of the system’s challenges and needed improvements. That danger is especially acute with several new members on the Board of Supervisors. As the search begins for a new department director, the supervisors should remember that they don’t need a new prescription for improvement. They need someone who will help them fill the one they already have.

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