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New County Agency Aims to Coordinate Children’s Services : Bureaucracy: Planning council hopes to focus the efforts of 1,200 public and private programs on youngsters and cut down on red tape.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Wednesday morning, in a standard county conference room with the standard agendas and pitchers of ice water on the table, a new bureaucracy was born whose goal is to cut the red tape that envelopes the lives of 2.5 million people in Los Angeles County.

The new bureaucracy is the Los Angeles County Children’s Planning Council. The lives at stake belong to the county’s children. One out of every 30 children in the United States lives in Los Angeles County.

The County Board of Supervisors voted to set up the council in June after a blue-ribbon committee appointed last year concluded that a planning council was urgently needed to help coordinate children’s services in Los Angeles County. The council is made up of 24 members representing private nonprofit groups, county departments, schools, minority groups, cities and business groups.

The council’s mission is to develop a long-range strategy for improving the delivery of services to the county’s children and to advise existing government boards, including the Board of Supervisors. It has no independent power. However, because of its broad base, the group is expected to have extensive influence on public policy.

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In arguing for a long-range planning council, the blue-ribbon committee noted that there are more than 1,100 private agencies in the county, with a combined budget of $1 billion, and more than 100 county programs whose budgets, totaling $3 billion, amount to a third of all county expenditures.

“The formation of this children’s services planning council presents a unique opportunity to plan and promote a unique and thorough children’s services program,” said Supervisor Deane Dana, who chairs the board. “It won’t be easy.”

One of the goals of the committee, he stressed, is to seek “ways to eliminate barriers to prevention and early identification of the problems of children.”

The blue-ribbon committee said that agencies, with the best of intentions, have been vying with each other to offer children’s programs that in the end provide costly, duplicative services. Some children have wound up with several social workers--from, say, departments of welfare, mental health services, and probation--each looking at one of the child’s needs, but not at the child as a whole.

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The result, children’s advocates say, is a system designed for bureaucrats--not for children.

“We have a system based on programs and yet we have kids out there who don’t know programs, only their own needs,” said attorney David Fleming, who chaired the blue-ribbon committee and who is a member of the new council. “We in effect have to figure out how to stick a square peg in a round hole--and modify both.”

If the new council does its job, it will point out what is wrong with the very agencies whose leaders are represented on the panel.

That means public agencies will expose themselves to an ongoing public scrutiny few have felt before. Private agencies that have been competing with each other for scarce funding will have to collaborate with each other and public agencies.

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“I was really very, very impressed by the breadth of this group,” said Peter Digre, who heads the county’s Department of Children’s Services. “I’d like to see the ball rolling within a year.”

As the new council went about the routine business of setting up committees and schedules in its first brief meeting Wednesday, there was little evidence that some officials represented on the council originally had opposed its formation--including Dana, Sheriff Sherman Block and county Chief Administrative Officer Richard Dixon. Block had at one point suggested that an agency he heads, the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, could take on any needed coordinating role.

“We were very polite today,” said Deanne Tilton, who represents ICAN on the board. “We all agree that prevention will be a priority, for example. But defining what it is we’re trying to prevent--and then how to prevent it--that will be the question. That’s when the turf battles will probably come in.”

The council decided to meet once every two months, with committees meeting more often. The panel will then study recommendations before it and make long-term planning recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

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At the next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 23, the council expects to hear testimony from several other groups that have been studying the welter of children’s services and ways of streamlining their delivery.


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