A commission evaluating Los Angeles County's child welfare system concluded today that it is "in crisis" and asked for a major overhaul, including the creation of an Office of Child Protection.
Commission members said the proposed office could oversee child safety and control resources across relevant departments without adding bureaucracy. "It should act as a knife that cuts through bureaucratic layers," commission member Dr. Andrea Rich told the Board of Supervisors.
Over eight months, the commission interviewed more than 300 people, reviewed 28 child deaths and evaluated hundreds of reports and previous recommendations aimed at improving the quality of lives of children in the county's care."The problem fundamentally is not a lack of good ideas or good people," commission vice chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie said. "Even that road out to Gabriel Fernandez's home in Palmdale was paved with good intentions."
Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy, died after allegedly being tortured by his mother's boyfriend, despite repeated reports of abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services. The boy's highly-publicized death prompted internal reforms and a move by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich to establish the child welfare commission. In addition to a "fundamental transformation" of the county system under a new umbrella agency, the commission offered about 40 specific recommendations. Proposals highlighted today included a shift to focus resources on children younger than 5, those determined to be at highest risk and to provide more support to relatives acting as caregivers.
Rich said the current leadership of the department lacked the expertise to change the system and called for a "change agent" with a "small office" to lead the charge.
At the same time, the commission encouraged greater involvement by some county departments. It urged the Board of Supervisors to give the Department of Public Health a larger role in assessing and coordinating care for at-risk children and to ask the District Attorney's Office to take a greater oversight and investigative role.
The board's reaction to the report was mixed.
Ridley-Thomas hailed the findings as "a potential break-through moment" and said the new recommendations could remove a "climate of hysteria" around child welfare.
"I don't see blame in this report, I see analysis. I see constructive critique," Ridley-Thomas said. Supervisor Don Knabe said he was open to any ideas for protecting the county's children, but warned of possible legal challenges posed by specific reforms. Any changes would have to be made in concert with reforms now underway, he said.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said all but one of the roughly 40 recommendations had been suggested by others in some iteration, and while some proposals were "good," others were "turkeys."
Yaroslavsky said he would not support a new oversight office. "A 20-member commission to oversee this effort is a non-starter for me," Yaroslavsky said, adding that he thought the idea "preposterous." The board directed the chief executive officer to review the report with DCFS and report back to the board May 20 with a fiscal and legal analysis of the proposals.
"Without support from the top and a wind to its back, any reform of this magnitude will fail," Rich told the board.