4 Finalists in Running to Head County's Child Welfare Agency

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County officials said Wednesday that they have narrowed their search for a new director of the county's child welfare department to four candidates, including a deputy director of the agency.

The other finalists include directors of county welfare agencies in Colorado and Michigan, and a social services administrator from Minnesota.

Combined, the finalists' resumes total more than 20 pages. But just as important as assessing the finalists' credentials, observers say, is weighing the measure of stability each could bring to the helm of the nation's largest child welfare agency.

Since the Department of Children and Family Services was created in 1984, three of its four permanent directors have been fired. The most recent, Anita Bock, was forced out last July by the Board of Supervisors.

Aside from the scrutiny it faces from the county board, the department is policed by a vocal network of child welfare advocates, as well as by the media.

The agency is charged with protecting some 42,000 children under its supervision from abuse and neglect, meaning that whoever runs it has a daunting -- some say thankless -- task.

"It's easily the most difficult job we have in the county," said David Janssen, the county's chief administrative officer and a member of the search committee that selected the candidates. "If you make a wrong decision, it ends up on the front page, and there's no cheering group to tell you when you do a good job."

All four finalists for the position, which pays between $179,944 and $199,962, have backgrounds in child welfare services. John Oppenheim is the only one with experience in Los Angeles County.

Oppenheim served as director of social services in Santa Clara County from 1990-98. He later worked for Maximus, a private company that recently won a $9.9-million contract to run L.A. County's welfare-to-work program.

Oppenheim was hired by the county last year as chief deputy director of the department he now seeks to lead.

Another candidate is David A. Berns, director of human services in El Paso County, Colo., where he has worked since 1997. Berns formerly worked for Michigan's Department of Social Services.

James E. Beougher is director of Family Independence agencies in Livingston and Washtenaw counties in Michigan. Beougher served as director of Michigan's Child and Family Services Administration from 1996-2002.

The fourth candidate is David B. Sanders, a senior human services director for the Hennepin County Children, Family and Adult Services Department in Minneapolis. A clinical psychologist, Sanders has worked for the department since 1993.

Although area child welfare advocates said they are unfamiliar with most of the names on the list, they expressed hope for a good director.

"We hope whoever they choose is going to work with the [child welfare] agencies, and we think there's an opportunity to make great progress," said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights.

Supervisors will meet in closed session in February to discuss the finalists.

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