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Editorial: L.A. County’s new child welfare champion

A coalition of labor and child welfare advocates testified before Los Angeles County's Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection at the Hall of Administration in October of 2013.

A coalition of labor and child welfare advocates testified before Los Angeles County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection at the Hall of Administration in October of 2013.

(Los Angeles Times)

The chief task of Michael Nash, assuming he is confirmed Tuesday as the first permanent leader of the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection, will be to coordinate the work of several dozen departments and agencies to ensure they are working cooperatively in the interest of child welfare.

That’s a prosaic and somewhat obvious statement, but it’s worth making because so many critics have insisted over the years that the county’s troubled child welfare operation could be fixed only by switching ideologies, procedures, leaders, training, union rules or social workers. The essential genius of the county Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which filed its report last year and called for the new office, was to recognize that the primary challenge was a stifling bureaucracy that made county departments and outside agencies such as school districts, courts and police operate like so many rail cars rolling in different directions on different tracks. Nash, the former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, must mold them into a single train with a common destination.

His authority will be limited. He won’t be the all-powerful “child protection czar” that many sought, with the ability to move money and personnel on his own. The five members of the Board of Supervisors have made it abundantly clear that decisions are theirs alone to make. Nash will have to lead through recommendation and persuasion, and muster just the right amounts of ego and deference, subject matter expertise and political acumen, in order to point the board in the right direction.

Public anger at the county and its Department of Children and Family Services was stirred by a succession of high-profile child deaths in cases where, arguably, social workers ought to have intervened. Better coordination and better use of the county’s wealth of expertise and resources may well limit such tragedies, but the failure or success of the new Office of Child Protection will often be less publicly apparent and will come in harder-to-measure outcomes. Already, under interim director Fesia Davenport and by action of the board, the office has established procedures to, for example, forestall child abuse or neglect by spotting warning signs in postnatal wards.

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Establishment of the office and the appointment of first Davenport and now Nash signal a new approach by the Board of Supervisors to county business. As with the creation this year of a single health agency, the board recognizes that it must reorganize the county’s constituent parts to foster better communication and coordination to serve residents most in need and least able to fend for themselves.

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