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Newton: Putting children first

It was nearly a year ago that Philip Browning was named head of Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services. He accepted the post with some reluctance — the department has a history of controversy, and has been battered again and again by reports of children dying in its care. Browning had been running DCFS on an interim basis, but when the county could not find a suitable permanent head, he yielded to the arm-twisting of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and took the job.

The department that Browning agreed to head was — and still is — riddled with problems. Paperwork sometimes overwhelms the best intentions of its staff; experienced social workers are often assigned to desk jobs, replaced by less-seasoned colleagues. Supervision is uneven and workloads unfairly distributed.

But Browning has already started addressing those issues. He completed a strategic plan in September. Now, he's working on a new organizational structure and has begun to put more experienced workers back into the field. He's lobbying for better technology so that social workers can access records remotely. He's rotating field-office bosses, an unpopular move but one intended to smooth out uneven management.

One profoundly important shift has been Browning's approach to children. In recent years, the department has stressed the importance of keeping families together whenever possible. Browning argues that a child's safety should trump all other concerns, even when it means taking children from their parents.

"If we think the child is safe, we leave the child with the biological parents," he explained in the soft Southern accent that causes some to underestimate his toughness. "Sometimes, of course, that's just not possible."

Browning's more stringent approach has meant an increase in the number of children removed from their homes. Last year, the agency filed 14,785 petitions, most of them in connection with detaining children, an increase from 13,481 the year before. What that means in raw terms is that the county last year removed a child from his or her home more than 200 times a week on average.

The hope is that children are protected once they're under the county's care, but the sad truth is that they face a capricious future. Some land with capable foster families, and perhaps will be adopted. Some are returned home to families that have recovered from the initial incident and will go on to raise them well. Others, however, are shuttled from one foster home or group facility to another, and grow up without any sense of coherent, dependable family. Some are physically or sexually abused. Some die.

The other day, I talked to Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center, about the changes Browning is making in the department. When I laid out the approach he'd described to me, she agreed with many of his priorities. But she also talked about the frustrations she's had again and again in dealing with the county.

When asked for examples, she recounted a recent episode in which a 7-year-old girl, after years of bumping from home to home, eventually was placed in a stable home with her aunt. Unfortunately, the aunt lived in Lancaster, and DCFS had ordered that the child undergo physical therapy at Children's Hospital in Hollywood. That meant a long trip twice a week for the aunt, and she was forced to leave her other children in the care of her mother, who had a history of drug abuse and was not approved to babysit by DCFS. Social workers took the niece away. She was placed in yet another foster home, which officials assumed might be permanent but turned out not to be. Two days before Christmas, the little girl was moved again.

That's just one case, she noted, but anyone familiar with the system can describe dozens more like it every day.

"The department continues to put up barriers … to taking care of kids," Heimov said. "They need to make their policy work for every child, not just half or just the lucky ones."

Certainly, Browning recognizes that there is more to do. But one hint that events may be moving in the right direction is the attitude of the county supervisors. They notoriously pick on department heads and have battered more than one DCFS chief, but for the moment they seem uncharacteristically deferential.

Yaroslavsky calls Browning "the best turnaround artist in public administration." Browning hasn't done it yet, but there's finally some basis for hope.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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