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Florida Official to Head Child Welfare Agency : L.A. County: Supervisors hire the No. 2 man of a strongly criticized statewide department. Edelman strongly opposes the choice, saying ‘he doesn’t measure up.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the vigorous objections of Supervisor Ed Edelman, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has selected a new director for its troubled child welfare department--the No. 2 man at a sprawling Florida agency that handles a broad range of health-related services.

Gerald Peter Digre was chosen from among five finalists to be the next director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services. The supervisors picked him in executive session last week; a formal vote to confirm the appointment is not expected until Tuesday.

Digre, 46, is currently deputy director of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in Tallahassee, a statewide agency that, during the past four years, has been the subject of intense criticism for its handling of cases involving abused and neglected children.

Newspaper investigations have alleged cronyism in the way the department awarded state contracts and have focused attention on numerous cases in which children died while under its supervision. Last year, the state passed child-abuse reforms and boosted spending after the widely publicized death of a 2-year-old foster child, who was returned home in spite of reports of abuse.

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Digre’s appointment comes at a time when Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency is undergoing a massive state-ordered overhaul. State officials, who at one point threatened to take over the agency, found that social workers routinely failed to visit the children they supervised and that county officials permitted foster children to remain in homes where they were physically and sexually abused.

Edelman, who is largely responsible for creating the 6-year-old Los Angeles County child welfare agency, said these allegations figured into his vote against Digre, but were not the only factor. The supervisor also said his staff checked with local child welfare officials in Florida, and received reports that Digre can be difficult to work with and autocratic.

“This is an important department,” Edelman said Wednesday. “I’m the guy that brought it into existence. I want to make sure that I’m satisfied that we’re giving the best leadership to it and I must say that, with all due respect, he doesn’t measure up. . . .

“Normally, if the board takes a position, I usually go along with it, but not in this case,” Edelman added. “I have to vote my conviction and my conscience.”

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But Supervisor Deane Dana said he and the remaining three board members, all of whom voted for Digre, were impressed with the candidate’s credentials. In addition to his work in Florida, Digre has held high-ranking positions at child welfare agencies in Philadelphia and in Illinois.

“He had experience in Philadelphia moving into a very turbulent situation, very similar to what we have here (in that) the state was planning to take over the children’s services program,” Dana said. “He turned around the whole operation. He has a reputation of being a tough, fair-minded manager and moving into a troubled situation and solving the problem.”

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Digre acknowledged that there have been problems with the Florida agency but made no apologies for his tenure there, saying there has been dramatic improvement since he arrived in March, 1987.

“The documentation is absolutely overwhelming that over the last four years the state of Florida is doing a much better job in social welfare and in public health,” he said. “The budget has doubled. The infant mortality rate has actually gone down. We’ve erected (public medical clinics) in every county. Adoptions (of foster children) have gone from about 600 a year to 1,000. . . . I’m very proud of everything that’s gotten done.”

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With an annual budget of $7.4 billion and 43,000 employees, the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services is much larger than the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services, which has 3,900 employees and a budget of $457 million. In addition to serving abused and neglected children, the Florida agency also runs medical and mental health programs, as well as services for the aged.

If he is confirmed by the supervisors, as is expected, Digre said he intends to begin work in Los Angeles in early January. He said he would like to focus more attention on recruiting foster parents and adoptive parents, on preserving families so that children do not have to be removed from home and on working with private advocacy groups to develop “common goals” for providing quality care to the county’s 55,000 abused and neglected children.

Although the County Administrative Office would not make public the details of his contract, Digre said the supervisors have offered him $115,000 a year and a standard agreement in which he would serve at their pleasure. The previous agency chief, Robert L. Chaffee, was paid $109,200 annually.

Chaffee resigned last July. For the past five months, the Department of Children’s Services has been run by Elwood Lui, a former appellate judge who has spent most of his time working on a state-ordered plan to overhaul the department. Both Digre and Lui said they have discussed the possibility of Lui staying on as a consultant.

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