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New Head of Children’s Services OKd : L.A. County: The supervisors split 3 to 2 over Digre running the troubled agency. Board heard testimony from a grandmother upset with his handling of a Florida case involving abuse victim who died.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By a split 3-2 vote in closed session, Los Angeles County supervisors decided Tuesday to hire the No. 2 man at Florida’s statewide health services agency to take over the troubled Department of Children’s Services.

The vote to hire Gerald Peter Digre as the department’s director followed a public hearing that included dramatic, surprise testimony from the grandmother of a 2-year-old boy whose death generated widespread criticism of Florida’s Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

After the testimony, Supervisor Ed Edelman--who has been extremely vocal in his opposition to Digre--told his colleagues he had learned new information about Digre that he wanted to share during a closed session. The vote followed.

Edelman dissented, as did Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who said he was persuaded by Edelman that Digre’s demanding management style would not work well in Los Angeles.

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After the vote, Edelman called a news conference to express “strong displeasure"--not only at the appointment of Digre, but also at the way he was hired. The supervisor complained that the executive search firm that selected Digre as a finalist failed to disclose any negative information about him. Edelman also voiced displeasure that his colleagues did not make an effort to find a candidate on whom they could all agree.

“My concerns were sort of brushed aside,” Edelman said.

Supervisor Deane Dana said Digre was “the best candidate we interviewed.” Supervisor Mike Antonovich praised his “excellent credentials.”

Digre, 46, is currently the No. 2 man at the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, a sprawling state agency that is responsible for a variety of health services, including those to abused and neglected children. The agency has been harshly criticized in recent years, and Edelman cited this criticism--as well as complaints from those who worked for Digre--in opposing the nomination.

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In a telephone interview, Digre said he was “very conscious” of the split among the supervisors, adding: “I just can’t wait to get there and start the process of building that place and make all five board members proud of the results.”

Since its director resigned in July, the Department of Children’s Services has been undergoing a massive state-ordered reorganization. Investigators found, among other problems, that social workers routinely failed to visit the children they supervise and that county officials permitted children to remain in foster homes where they had been abused. The department serves 55,000 abused and neglected children.

Digre, who said he will assume the $115,000-a-year post Jan. 2, was expected to be confirmed publicly at Tuesday’s board meeting. The vote was delayed after the testimony of Mary Rae Coe, a Long Beach woman who is the grandmother of Bradley McGee, perhaps Florida’s most well-known victim of child abuse.

Coe held back tears as she told the board of how she called a Florida child abuse hot line five times to report that Bradley was being abused by his parents.

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“Nothing was done,” she said bitterly. “Now he’s dead.”

The child was sent back from a foster home to his mother and stepfather, who killed the boy in July, 1989, by repeatedly dunking his head in a toilet and beating him with a wet pillow. The case led to the conviction of a social worker on charges of neglect and caused changes in Florida law, adding $13 million annually in child welfare funds.

Coe contacted Edelman after reading newspaper stories about Digre’s possible selection for the county job. The supervisor asked her to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Her voice quavering, Coe complained to the supervisors that Digre had stated publicly that her grandson’s death was “a question of probability” and that an agency as large as his would inevitably make “errors of judgment,” such as those that led to the boy’s death.

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Digre was not at Tuesday’s hearing and could not be reached for comment.


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