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California

L.A. County child welfare agency to be targeted for reforms

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a citizens’ blue ribbon commission to propose reforms in the county’s troubled child welfare agency.

The commission, with two members to be appointed by each of the five supervisors, will review past attempts at reforms and make recommendations by the end of 2013. The body will also have authority to examine other agencies that deal with child welfare, including law enforcement and health service providers.

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The supervisors’ move was prompted by the death in May of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. The Palmdale boy’s mother and her boyfriend have been charged with torture and murder in his death, which was first publicly disclosed in a Times report.

The county’s Department of Children and Family Services had conducted six prior child abuse investigations into Gabriel’s family, but had not removed him.

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The case was the latest in a series of high-profile deaths of children who had come in contact with the foster care system. The county agency has also come under scrutiny recently over its management of a contract with Teens Happy Homes, a foster care provider accused of financial improprieties and child abuse at the hands of staff and foster parents.

County leaders have made multiple attempts to address problems with the child welfare system: In 1996, supervisors established an inspector general for the agency, followed by the Children’s Special Investigation Unit in 2008. Last year, investigators issued a damning report on 13 child fatality incidents that outlined systemic problems. At one point, the board even removed the department from the control of the county chief executive officer and began to exercise direct supervision.

Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said the issue needs a fresh set of eyes.

“It is urgent for us to address this issue anew. These children, their families, our community deserve no less,” he said. “We have tried, but our attempts have not been good enough.”

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Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe opposed the new commission, saying that the county had already received hundreds of recommendations for reform from different entities, and agency Director Philip Browning — who took over as acting director in December 2010 and became permanent director last year — needed time to implement them.

“I, for one, think it’s too soon to declare this attempt at reform a failure,” Knabe said. “The department gets pulled in 99 different directions every time there is a public relations crisis.”

Some compared the child protection commission to another overseeing reforms in the county’s jails. Yaroslavsky pointed out that unlike the Sheriff’s Department, which is headed by an elected sheriff who does not report to the board, the family services agency is directly under the control of the supervisors.

Browning said he hoped the commission would function like the Christopher Commission, which was convened to study reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beating.

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“We need all the support we can get, and we’ll certainly work with the blue ribbon commission to the best of our ability,” he said.

It has not been determined how much access commission members will have to documents, including confidential case files. Browning said he would support giving commission members access to the files, provided they pass a background check and agree not to share confidential information. But the question could raise legal issues.

A number of child welfare advocates spoke in support of the commission.

Carol Biondi, who sits on the county’s Commission for Children and Families, told supervisors: “I believe in the value of citizens’ commissions ... because the individuals who volunteer for them do it for no other reason than they care passionately about all children, particularly the most vulnerable children.”

But others were skeptical, including Donna Myrow, who published a youth newspaper for 25 years and is on a state blue ribbon commission on foster care.

“They’ve had so many recommendations, and this keeps happening over and over again,” she said. “Is there any guarantee that this commission will be different and have any kind of authority to demand changes?”

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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