Trish Ploehn, the embattled director of Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services, was removed Monday and is expected to be replaced for now by a top county official who wrote a recent report which found the agency to be in "crisis."
Antonia Jimenez, a top aide to county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, called for focused attention on reducing a backlog of child abuse investigations in the report, which was released last month. She also found numerous management deficiencies in the department, saying that the agency needed to improve its system for employee discipline and simplify directions given to workers.
Whoever runs the agency will face difficult challenges: A backlog of investigations into abuse and neglect allegations remains dauntingly large. Crucial information about family history is still not readily available to most social workers in the field, and many county departments fail to share information in a timely manner, despite years of notice to the Board of Supervisors that lack of communication impedes good decision making.
"It seems unlikely that replacing the director, for the fifth time in 20 years, will solve the overwhelming problems faced by an overburdened and under-resourced system in an environment of increasing child poverty and record unemployment," said Leslie Heimov, director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, the court-appointed counsel for 90% of children in the system.
The sentiment was echoed by Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and one of the state's leading advocates for abused or neglected children.
"It is more than the director, it's more than one policy, it's more than the pendulum that sways between detaining too many children or too few. It's about whether they can make individualized decisions and have the resources and the expertise to carry them out effectively. Los Angeles County too often goes back and forth between policy fads, and I don't like to do that when children's lives are at stake," she said.
Nonetheless, Ploehn's relationship with some of the county supervisors has frayed in recent months as problems mounted at the agency. Jimenez's report about management deficiencies at the agency portrayed a more dire situation than many county officials had assumed. It crystallized concerns among senior officials that Ploehn, who joined the department in 1979 and was the first director selected from inside its ranks, was not the right person to fix its current problems.
Fujioka is expected to recommend that Jimenez be appointed on an interim basis after removing Ploehn, a move that had been in the works for more than a month. Ploehn will be reassigned to a position in Fujioka's office handling administrative tasks unrelated to child welfare, and it was unclear if she would retain her $260,000 annual compensation package, according to Fujioka's spokesman.
Jimenez will not have the benefit of significant child welfare experience. She came to Los Angeles County government only months ago after working as a senior manager at Deloitte, the management consulting firm, and in Massachusetts state government, including the governor's office, focusing mostly on healthcare issues.
Since arriving in L.A., however, she has gained officials' confidence for her management expertise and has been admired for her reputation as a turnaround expert. Behind the scenes, she has asked supervisors' aides to pull back from their involvement in the department's affairs to give her and the chief executive's staff the opportunity to take nearly singular ownership of the day-to-day efforts to correct the agency.
Officials close to the discussions said Fujioka initially balked at a recommendation from Supervisor Gloria Molina to choose Jimenez as the interim director because he felt he needed her in her current position. Ultimately, however, after looking at other internal candidates, he decided Jimenez was the best fit.
As Jimenez puts her plan into motion, supervisors are urging Fujioka to conduct a national search for a permanent director and replace additional key personnel.
"The county now has a unique opportunity to bring in new executive leadership and a strong executive management team to DCFS," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "The department needs to put child safety, transparency and effective administration first."
The mission of the department's 7,300-member staff is to care for abused children and help reunite them with their families. From Chatsworth to Pomona and San Fernando to Long Beach, the department's investigators and social workers examine 160,000 child abuse allegations a year and supervise 32,000 children in the system, including 18,000 in foster care. They also arrange adoptions and offer drug and alcohol counseling for parents, treatment for young victims of sexual abuse and special medical services for seriously ill children.
More than 67 children have died of abuse or neglect since the beginning of 2008 after being referred to the department, according to county statistics. The rate of such deaths has increased over that period, and county officials have acknowledged that many of those deaths involved case-management errors.
In a defiant message to her staff, Ploehn said she was certain "our department is on the right track, irrespective of what is said by those who may be quick to offer criticism without fully understanding what we do."
She told employees that she remained "exceptionally proud of what we have accomplished together."