Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director for Los Angeles County’s beleaguered child welfare agency, carries two cellphones in his pocket.
One BlackBerry tethers him to his county job, where he is responsible for the mental health needs of nearly 20,000 foster children. The second — kept in a plastic case adorned with images of dollar bills — is reserved for his Beverly Hills-based private psychiatric practice, where his patients have included Paris Hilton, and for scheduling appearances on television interview and reality shows. Among his recent on-camera sessions was counseling of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” cast member Taylor Armstrong and her husband, Russell, before Russell Armstrong committed suicide Aug. 15.
The two phones, Sophy said, signal his commitment to strictly segregate his public and private worlds. Despite those efforts, the two roles have overlapped in ways that have attracted attention.
Some say the county is fortunate to have a nationally recognized mental health expert on staff and that Sophy has made significant improvements in foster child care. But others argue that he has grown gradually more distracted over the years, and they question his commitment to the $256,000 county post.
“He’s a guy who is preoccupied. I think the county comes second. Why is he involved in all this outside work when he has a house that is not in order at DCFS?” asked Aubrey Manual, president of a local foster parent association.
Sophy and the executive team in charge of the Department of Children and Family Services have come under repeated criticism for systemic breakdowns that contributed to the fatalities of children under their supervision. Sophy’s unit has been specifically faulted in some of those deaths, and Supervisor Gloria Molina harshly scolded him in a closed-door meeting this year, according to officials familiar with the exchange.
Specifically, the department has been faulted for slow progress implementing a legal settlement that requires it to dramatically improve care for thousands of mentally ill children requiring intensive treatment.
Yet Sophy still enjoys high regard among many in the child welfare community, and he said county officials recently asked him to apply to lead the agency. Even some of the agency’s most trenchant critics praise him.
Kim Lewis, the lead plaintiff attorney in the class action against the county, said Sophy has been an effective partner. Furthermore, she said it was important that Sophy is the longest-serving member in the agency’s management team, a group notorious for its revolving door.
“I think he is one of the few folks who brings a sense of continuity to the important issues, and I think he has shown himself to care significantly about the issues and the kids,” Lewis said. “I think he is an advocate for change.”
Sophy, 50, maintains that he gets more out of helping the underprivileged than the rich and famous, pointing to his own background as the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner as evidence of his connection to hard-scrabble life. He earned his medical degree from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, worked as a psychiatrist for the county Department of Mental Health and has been medical director since 2003.
“Honest to God, this is where my heart is,” Sophy said in his government office, where the walls are covered with diplomas, children’s artwork and photos of his 9-year-old son. “I put it all into perspective. There are many times I go to see my patients in 90210 and I’m like, ‘Do you have any idea that I was just in a home where they didn’t have dinner?’”
Sophy, who has a personal publicist who promotes him to various news outlets, has devoted a growing portion of his time to his more glamorous endeavors. This year alone, he has appeared on nearly 20 news programs, including 11 appearances on NBC’s “Today” show.
In 2007, he took extended lunch breaks from his county job to visit Hilton in jail and meet with sheriff’s officials to tell them that the Lynwood lockup was imperiling her mental health. Sophy said the trips were approved by Trish Ploehn, the agency’s director at the time.
The same year, Sophy frequently appeared on TV as an expert commentator on the case of Nadya Suleman, the Whittier woman who gave birth to octuplets after treatment by a fertility physician.
Suleman’s situation caused numerous calls to the county’s child abuse hotline, and department officials say they are strictly barred from speaking about such cases.
Nevertheless, Sophy went on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to offer his opinion on Suleman. “I think it’s an outrageous number of children,” he said.
Sophy said he believed the interview did not pose a conflict of interest, because the department had not initiated a formal investigation of Suleman in L.A. County.
Many of Sophy’s television interviews in the last year supported a 2010 book he co-wrote about mother and daughter relationships that received glowing endorsements from Hilton, actress Sharon Stone and Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.” In 2008, Sophy began appearing on episodes of Pinsky’s VH1 program about stars facing serious addiction issues. He has done a variety of other consulting work for reality television — most of which, he said, he is not paid for.
“When I’m on these shows, I go back to — ‘No, this is about teaching. This is about breaking the stigma. This is about treatment,’” Sophy said. “These shows can be helpful, and you can watch and project your own issues on them and learn how to navigate problems.”
But Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, director for the Center for Ethics at Emory University, questioned if it’s in the best interests of patients to broadcast their therapy.
“The nature of therapy suggests that there are things people don’t know about themselves that they need to reveal, so how can one truly consent to having that process filmed when one doesn’t really know what they’ll end up saying?” Wolpe questioned. “The highest standards of medical ethics would say you don’t put someone in that risky a situation.”
Last year, Sophy said, he was in discussions with ABC to host two reality shows, but they “never really panned out.” Instead, he has devoted time to teaching at USC, Pierce College and UCLA, and he does occasional national paid speaking engagements across the country.
“If he is out of town, we are usually told,” said Lisa Mandel, an aide to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “Wherever he goes, he’s accessible. If I need him at 10 at night, I can call him.”
That sentiment was echoed by one of Sophy’s private patients, Melanie Brown, a former Spice Girl who has been working with him for more than three years.
“I could email him or call him right now, and he’d been on the phone in five minutes,” said Brown, who once featured therapy sessions with Sophy on her reality show, “Mel B: It’s a Scary World.” “If I’m having a difficult time, no matter where he is in the world, no matter where I am — he’s there for me.”
In a statement of economic interest provided to the county, Sophy said his outside employment generated $10,001 to $100,000 last year. He also said he complies with a county policy that limits employees to 24 hours of outside work per week.
Sophy — whose everyday uniform consists of a well-tailored suit and dress shoes, sans socks — lives in a Beverly Hills home whose value was assessed at $3.5 million in 2007. He also owns two smaller properties in Rancho Mirage.
Although the Armstrong suicide focused renewed attention on Sophy’s private practice, Sophy declined to comment on his relationship with the couple, citing physician-patient confidentiality. A person close to the production, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, confirmed that Sophy’s session with the Armstrongs were filmed.
It’s not clear how much of that will appear on the new season of “Housewives,” which debuts Monday on Bravo.