For years, the top director of Los Angeles County’s child protective services agency sat in an office hidden behind an unmarked, locked door.
When current director Philip Browning arrived, he made an early decision to use a doorstop to prop it open. And he publicly posted his own name and picture as well as those of his managers, prompting protests by some who feared for their safety.
“The goal is to change the culture,” Browning said, acknowledging the embarrassment that some feel at an agency shamed by repeated failures that have allowed at-risk children to die. “What I would like to see is for the worker to be so proud of what he’s doing that he tells his next-door neighbor where he works, which is not the case right now.”
Browning, 66, who rises at 4:15 a.m. to run five miles before work, is attempting to revive one of the most troubled public agencies in Southern California.
It’s been a year since he agreed — somewhat reluctantly — to permanently lead Los Angeles County’s long-troubled agency, and many people are still withholding judgment on his performance.
“I have never seen him take a criticism or disagreement personally,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, chief executive of Community Coalition, an agency in South Los Angeles that advocates for more support for relative caregivers. “He’s always been able to keep the conversation about the work and try to apply the energy to solve problems.”
Browning is disappointed, however, in the slow progress to improve the agency’s 6,800 employees who operate in a byzantine bureaucracy that investigates 160,000 annual child abuse complaints and oversees more than 19,000 foster children.
“I’d give myself a C, if not lower. I have not been able to perform the way I hoped,” he said in his Alabama drawl following a fresh wave of miserable news.
In recent weeks, Browning has been forced to answer questions about two young children who were allegedly tortured by a Palmdale woman who adopted them from foster care and later bound their hands behind their backs with zip ties and beat them with electrical cords and a hammer, authorities said.
Browning acknowledged his social workers approved the adoption following shoddy casework.
Then came the leak to The Times of an internal county report that offered a top-to-bottom indictment of the department’s stifling policies and inept workforce.
The situation, investigators said, was akin to “the blind leading the blind.” In the overwhelming majority of child fatality cases reviewed, they said the department’s failures significantly contributed to the deaths.
The poor casework involving the Palmdale children and the problems described in the internal report both occurred when the department was under the leadership of former director Trish Ploehn and the county’s chief executive, William T Fujioka.
Ploehn had been a defender of the department and, with Fujioka, took a combative approach to press reports. Their tactics drew widespread complaints from the Board of Supervisors and members of the public that they were withholding information about problems.
Browning has seemed eager to show he’s taking a different approach, answering questions about the agency’s poor performance.
“There are no simple solutions. If there were, they would already be implemented, but you can’t fix things if nobody knows about them,” Browning said. “It’s always easier to do things behind closed doors, but frankly that usually comes back to bite you. There are no secrets in this department.”
For that approach, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has called Browning “the best turnaround artist in public administration.”
Browning achieved success over a career that began in Alabama before leading to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
Andy Hornsby, who led Alabama’s public assistance and social services programs when Browning held key posts, said Browning’s quiet demeanor masked his toughness.
“He did not have the luxury of trying to tolerate poor performers,” Hornsby said. “I had a political appointee who I needed to run off. I put him under Philip and it worked pretty fast.”
Browning, a longtime Navy reservist who recently retired as a lieutenant commander, often saw his military bearing pay off.
“Whenever I went into any area where he was in charge, it was immaculate,” said J. Gary Cooper, another former Alabama social services chief.
“During those days, of course, poverty just really persisted and many people looked down on people who took food stamps and were on welfare. Some of the employees shared that view and did not treat them well, but Philip had his people well trained, and that earned my respect for him.”
In Washington, Browning led highly regarded improvements to child support collections during a time when that city had the highest child poverty rate in America. That drew the attention of Los Angeles County, where an even deeper crisis had taken hold.
When the Board of Supervisors hired him to lead their child support program, Browning improved customer service, and collections increased 36%, to more than $500 million. Later, as the county’s welfare chief, he fixed the most error-plagued food stamp program in the nation and brought it into federal compliance.
His resume portrayed him as a pragmatic administrator, but he had no experience in child protection services, leading some to worry when he was appointed to his latest job.
But Browning said his life experience gave him a visceral insight into the kind of family breakdowns at the center of the agency’s work.
When his first wife’s brother was murdered by her sister-in-law in the 1970s, he and his wife obtained social workers’ approval to raise their two children. “We sat around a kitchen table like people do all the time, and they didn’t have a place to go,” Browning said.
His wife quit work, they added to their house, and they facilitated monthly visits to the children’s mother in prison. “Most of the people who provide care for children in our system are relative caregivers, and I know what they go through,” he said.
As the department’s leader, his management style has been marked mostly by emphasizing the use of data to track performance and cautious decision-making as the agency implements its first comprehensive reform plan in a decade.
To help solve one of the department’s central problems — poor child abuse investigations — he is promising to win pay increases for his most skilled employees, as well as the best technology and management support.
“I’d like those workers to be the Marines of the department — the best and the brightest,” he said.
The orders for the workers have also changed as the department stresses child safety and eases its emphasis on keeping children with their families. Over the past year, the number of foster children has grown by 800, to 19,100.
“I take extreme issue with that,” said Michael Nash, presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court. “Safety and keeping kids with families are not mutually exclusive.
“The number of kids in our system is the highest it’s been for years, and with shrinking court resources, it’s very difficult for us to keep up with the flow. This becomes a black hole for many of those kids.”
Browning pursues his politically perilous agenda under conditions that might be more difficult than his predecessors’. Following the Board of Supervisors determination that Fujioka had poorly managed the department, he was formally relieved of those duties. The department was ordered to report directly to the county’s five elected leaders.
“I spend more time with the board here than I did cumulatively in all of the previous 10 years at the county,” Browning said.
“This is a Tuesday to Tuesday job,” he said in reference to the board’s weekly meeting. “That’s the nature of people in this position. They don’t last very long.”
During a recent visit to New York City to study reforms there, he noted that the system’s recently departed chief reported to a single strong mayor and had seven years on the job.