Advertisement
Share

L.A. County child services chief may be ousted

Los Angeles County officials are planning to replace the embattled chief of the Department of Children and Family Services, according to high-level officials familiar with the matter, moving to address the problems of an agency they have declared to be in crisis.

Trish Ploehn, who has headed the department for four years, will probably be reassigned elsewhere in the county, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified because the move concerned a personnel decision that had not been made public. They said William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, was expected to appoint an interim director to allow for a search for a permanent replacement.

As problems mounted, the Board of Supervisors increasingly criticized Ploehn’s performance, and her relationship with some members privately frayed. In recent months, she hired an attorney to write a letter alleging that they had created a hostile work environment for her, according to a source familiar with the matter.

News that Ploehn’s departure may be imminent came as top county leaders have acknowledged that the department is in crisis, with a massive backlog of open investigations into child-abuse allegations and a history of mistakes in the oversight of abused and neglected children that sometimes contributed to their injuries or deaths.

Advertisement

Ploehn, 56, joined the department in 1979 and has worked in most of the key sections, including as a youth counselor, adoption specialist and emancipation services worker. In 2003, she became deputy director, and in 2006, she became the first director to be selected from inside the department. She earned about $260,000 last year, making her among the top 200 highest paid county officials.

With 170,000 child abuse hotline calls a year, and 7,300 employees, running the department is one of the most difficult management tasks in local government.

During her tenure, Ploehn has been credited with improving the stability of placements for the 30,000 children living, under the department’s active supervision, with family members or in foster care. She also improved education opportunities for some of the foster children.

But aides to the county Board of Supervisors said support for Ploehn waned as mishandled cases came to light and two outside reports found shortcomings in the department’s management.

Her tenure has coincided with a time of competing pressures. On one side, more public review of cases involving death or injury — made possible under a new state disclosure law — laid bare the inadequacy of the department’s procedures. In order to limit decisions made with too little information, Ploehn worked to require social workers to conduct more interviews and review more databases before acting on child abuse claims.

But the move to improve the quality of investigations pressed against state deadlines for investigating tips, intended to ensure prompt action. Ploehn said she did not have enough social workers to conduct the additional work within state deadlines. Members of the Board of Supervisors dismissed those complaints, saying the work could be done more efficiently.

Donna Myrow, a member of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, said Ploehn has worked under a microscope in ways her predecessors did not because new disclosure laws have made it easier for the public to see the department’s worst cases.

“The problems we are reading about are not new, they are just coming to the public’s attention in ways they did not before,” said Myrow, who publishes a newspaper written by foster youth.

Among the problems Ploehn faces are questions about her management of a controversial federal and state program known as the Title IV-E waiver. Under the program, county officials agreed to accept a fixed sum from the federal government for foster care. If costs exceed that amount, the county must pay the difference. If the county spends less than the federal allotment, the county can use the leftover funds to pay for other programs designed to reduce child abuse and neglect.

Since the program began in 2007, children who had been left in their own homes after the department found them to be victims of abuse were increasingly experiencing abuse again within a year, according to a researcher hired by the state. The increase was 19%.

In addition, at least 67 children have died of abuse or neglect since January 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 involved case management errors.

“I think Trish is incredibly smart and capable in an extremely difficult job,” said Dr. Astrid Heger, who provides medical care to children under investigation by the department as the director of County- USC Medical Center’s Violence Intervention Program. “When you have to work under a bureaucracy that puts so many demands on your skill set, it is hard to deliver in the way you might like.”

Over time, Ploehn became less willing to answer questions, with some county supervisors complaining that they struggled to obtain information.

In August, the county’s Office of Independent Review issued a report that said Ploehn’s department had not fully complied with a 2007 state law requiring the release of numerous records in fatality cases.

Workers responsible for the disclosure were not communicating properly with other sections of the agency, the report found, and the breakdown had led to “a virtual paralysis of the statute’s intent.”

Fujioka’s office issued a report to supervisors last month that said the department was in “crisis” as a result of the persistent backlog of open investigations into allegations of child-abuse. Four in 10 open inquiries stretched beyond the state’s two-month deadline, according to the most recent county statistics. The Times reported Friday on those findings, which were publicly released this week.

In a brief telephone conversation Friday, Ploehn declined to comment on whether county officials were planning to remove her as department head. She said she was unable to talk at the moment and would call back later.

Fujioka referred questions to a spokesman, Ryan Alsop, who said he had no knowledge of any impending moves at the department.

“All personnel matters, particularly the reassignment of a department head, is [Fujioka’s] decision, and that decision has not been made,” Alsop said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com


Advertisement