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New director of L.A. County child welfare agency takes direct, ‘just-the-facts’ approach

A conversation with Antonia Jiménez is marked by paradox — her ability to define problems by the numbers is leavened by a careful skepticism of what statistics really mean; her hard-nosed professional assessments give way to hints that she is personally a little shy.

Jiménez — the daughter of a single mother who stitched and ironed in New York City factories — rose to important jobs in Massachusetts state government. Her climb, colleagues say, was fueled by a zeal to provide disadvantaged schoolchildren, public hospital patients and other government service recipients with the same efficiency and standards found in the upper reaches of the private sector.

By the time Jiménez arrived late last year to serve as a top deputy for Los Angeles County’s chief executive, she had a reputation for being a turnaround expert — and her new employers were in desperate need of one.

One of the agencies she was asked to oversee, the Department of Children and Family Services, was under fire after dozens of cases in which children died after poor oversight. Among the problems facing the department: Investigators had failed to complete inquiries into abuse or neglect allegations affecting more than 10,000 at-risk children within state deadlines.

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The open investigations had an unsettling topography. In Compton, 60% of child abuse investigations dragged past the state’s 60-day deadline. In the west San Fernando Valley, none did.

Jiménez, 49, spent weeks trying to make sense of such a notable difference in two offices separated by 35 miles.

“I’m a facts person,” she said in an interview in her bare office atop DCFS headquarters. “I wanted to look at the data. I want to do my homework and do some analysis.”

In this case, the numbers convinced her that the problem was big. “We just needed a focused reform effort.”

The report Jiménez wrote after studying the backlog of open investigations into abuse or neglect allegations described a department in “crisis.”

Within weeks, the Board of Supervisors removed Trish Ploehn as director in December, replacing her with Jiménez until a permanent replacement is found.

“I wasn’t looking to be director of DCFS. I didn’t come here to take Trish out, contrary to what people believe,” Jiménez said. “But I am in a position now that if I have to support the county this way, I certainly will do that.”

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Colleagues say Jimenez often works 14-hour days and uses her little spare time to share chicken wings with friends or to dote on her mother, niece and nephew.

“I’m very selective with my time,” Jiménez said. “By the time you come to me, you should have proposals or concepts that we can say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ or tweak to make better.”

Gone are the marathon Monday meetings among the department’s senior management that were widely derided for mulling problems for hours but rarely arriving at solutions.

Gone too is the expectation that every incoming social worker will make it through the department’s training academy. The tradition is often blamed for contributing to the poor casework that came to light in many of the child death cases.

“Not every kid passes the class when you are in school,” she said, “so we should make sure that we have really clear criteria during the academy to be able to select the best and the brightest.”

Unlike Ploehn, who had decades of experience in the child welfare system, Jimenez is an expert in budgets and information technology.

Ploehn joined the county in 1979 after earning a master’s degree in social work and spent significant amounts of time cultivating long-term relationships with community leaders who helped her win policy battles. Jiménez holds fewer meetings with community members, and she admits she is uncomfortable with attention.

“I really don’t like talking about myself,” she said, playfully shielding her face when a photographer appeared.

“She is not a political person. This is going to be her area of growth,” said Steven Kadish, a longtime collaborator who is now executive vice president at Dartmouth College.

Jiménez worked with Kadish as a fellow budget analyst for Massachusetts Gov. William Weld in the early 1990s. Later, they collaborated as leaders of the state’s Health and Human Services department. Shortly before Jiménez came to Los Angeles, Kadish hired her as a consultant for cost reduction at Dartmouth.

During their long partnership, the most noted success was born out of crisis. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, the state’s second-largest health insurer, faced financial collapse and entered state receivership in 2000. The insurer’s disintegration would have left 1.3 million patients without coverage and might have undermined the financial stability of many hospitals and doctors in the state.

Jiménez and Kadish were among half a dozen officials who briefly left state government to take charge of the company. They laid off 5% of the workforce, raised insurance premiums and renegotiated provider contracts. With the help of some accounting maneuvers, they pulled the insurer out of the red and emerged from receivership after just five months, although it remained under state oversight for years. Today, the insurer wins high marks for customer satisfaction.

The project was so successful that the company’s chief executive, Charlie Baker, made it the centerpiece of his strong but unsuccessful campaign to unseat Gov. Deval Patrick last year.

“Antonia was key,” Baker said. “She was very good at developing a plan and a criteria for success and then actually meeting benchmarks and getting them done. She did it with a Jack Webb ‘just-the-facts-ma’am’ approach.”

Jiménez said she hopes to helm the child welfare department for just three or four months, but she said she will stay as long as it takes to find a permanent replacement to lead the agency’s 7,300 employees and manage its annual budget of $1.7 billion.

John Mattingly, New York City’s child welfare chief, and David Sanders, a former Los Angeles County child welfare director, were among those consulted by county officials conducting the search. Both men said it may be difficult to lure a qualified person to Los Angeles.

So far, county supervisors have signaled they are searching for someone similar to Jiménez. The brochure for prospective candidates makes it clear they want someone with “demonstrated experience in turning around complex agencies.” No child welfare experience is required, although a business or public administration degree is desired.

Mattingly said that the best administrators will probably be reluctant to work for the Board of Supervisors, whose five members have divergent visions for the department and whose support can quickly fracture when problems arise.

The sheer number of bosses might also be a deterrent. Sanders said few administrators would be eager to leave jurisdictions where they answer to a single executive.

But he said Los Angeles is still attractive because the director has easy access to Washington lawmakers who shape the future of child welfare. Additionally, he said that despite the problems in the department’s workforce, it is still stronger than those in some areas of the country, particularly in certain portions of the South.

Jiménez acknowledged with a shrug that the selection process might take longer than she had hoped.

“I’ve been thinking, ‘What do I want my success to be in the meantime?” Jiménez said. “I don’t want to come here and babysit and wait for a new director and let things fall apart.”

She paused, then said softly: “I do have a personal goal. Before I go back to the CEO’s office, I’d like to make sure that we don’t have a backlog.”

The number has already dropped by 2,000. Just 8,000 to go.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com


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