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Fixing child protection means fixing L.A. County government

In August, as the newly formed Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection convened for the first time and members spoke aloud about the kinds of issues they expected they’d have to deal with, appointee Andrea Rich noted that there are certain problems inherent in “running big, awful bureaucracies.” And she ought to know, because as the former president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she once had a front row seat watching county government -- the biggest, most awful bureaucracy around.

But museums are in many respects insulated from that bureaucracy, unlike the Department of Children and Family Services and other offices and agencies that are meant to keep abused and neglected children from needlessly dying. So Rich and her colleagues were in for a sustained jolt over the last eight months as they drilled through the layers of the child welfare system and discovered a directionless and risk-averse government that has lost sight of its mission.

Little of the panel’s work has made the news so far, so few people heard the thunderclap of criticism delivered March 28 at its second-to-last meeting and directed at a Los Angeles County government, its culture, its leaders, its bureaucrats and especially its lawyers. Especially its lawyers.

On paper, Rich’s words seem measured and somewhat academic. It’s necessary to watch or listen to the recording – to Rich’s incredulity, her indignation, perhaps even a hint of anger – to fully appreciate just how blistering her assessment is of the county’s bureaucracy .

“Bureaucracies not carefully managed and consistently improved have characteristics that are destructive to client-oriented services, impede innovation, stifle efforts at self-improvement,” she said. “This sort of narrow span of control and bureaucratic risk-aversion typical of the bureaucratic process constantly thwarts efforts toward meaningful reform. And we’ve seen it over and over in our studies here and in testimony.”

Commission Chairman David Sanders also headed an L.A. County department – the often-criticized Department of Children and Family Services – but he said Monday that he was surprised at the extent of the dysfunction he saw from his new perspective compared with what he saw at DCFS.

Translation: The county is messed up. Efforts to reform the child protection system are doomed without a thorough overhaul – not of DCFS but of the entire county governmental edifice, the way it thinks and the way it works.

So how can that kind of overhaul happen? There are two ways to answer the question. One way is to look at the list of 734 recommendations for improving the child protection system offered to the Board of Supervisors and various county departments over the years that the commission found gathering dust on shelves or at best stalled in some early stage of implementation, and conclude that county government is hopeless.

The other is to look at the looming change in county leadership, with two of the five supervisors leaving office this year – the first time there has been that sweeping a change since Michael D. Antonovich ousted Baxter Ward and Deane Dana booted Yvonne Burke a generation ago, in 1980 – and candidates vying to replace them. Antonovich, still serving on the Board of Supervisors 34 years later, and Don Knabe, who succeeded his boss and mentor Dana, will likewise be replaced in two years.

Los Angeles County can have the exact same government and culture with slightly different faces, or it can embrace an opportunity for new thinking.

It’s fine for candidates to talk about how they would hire more child social workers,  although the county is already on track to do that. Or how they would change deployment, although those kinds of changes are constantly discussed and always seem to be in the works.

In the view of the commission – this is preliminary, because the final report is yet to be adopted – there is an even more global mandate, and while members of the panel may insist that their recommendations are all about ensuring child safety, a closer look suggests that they go to the heart of numerous challenges that this big, awful bureaucracy faces in order to accomplish anything: Explicitly define its mission; put someone in charge of executing it; measure success and failure.

Sitting supervisors may well protest that these things are already being done, and candidates may be puzzled at marching orders that sound more like a homework assignment in an MBA student’s organization behavior class than social work.

But that’s the point. The county has grown and segmented itself so quickly that it has lost its sense of priorities; or rather, its sense of priorities is set by news headlines, scandals, outrages and political campaigns.

In Rich’s words:

“In the absence of a clear vision and strong leadership, all of us who have ever worked in government know that bureaucracies emerge as the default method of solving complex problems and delivering services to large numbers of people. Bureaucracies by their nature tend to be reactive. They solve problems one at a time, seriatim, over time, and they create administrative structures, they start programs and they allocate resources one at a time with no overall perspective. As these reactive solutions multiply, initial problems become obscured and workable solutions difficult if not impossible to identify within the resulting bureaucratic maze.”

The commission’s final meeting is Thursday. Members are expected to consider and adopt final recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.


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