Growing up in Reston, Va., Darrell Park had an up-close view of foster care.
The candidate for a seat on Los Angeles County’s five-member Board of Supervisors recalls that his parents fostered 19 children from the time he was born until he left for college.
Some stayed for a weekend, some stayed for years, Park said. The money was never quite enough, but his parents were committed to providing a home for youngsters in need.
“That system worked to produce kids that were going to be responsible adults,” Park said. “I don’t think that’s the case today — the system is broken.”
In the race to replace termed-out Supervisor Michael Antonovich on the board, Park surprisingly emerged from a crowded field of more well-known and better-funded opponents in the primary election, including State Senator Bob Huff and Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander.
With 15.5 percent of the vote, he qualified for a runoff in the Nov. 8 election. Frontrunner and current Antonovich staffer Kathryn Barger led with nearly 30 percent of the votes.
The seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors comes with tremendous responsibilities, a $28 billion budget and the oversight of a county of more than 10 million people.
As Park mounts a longshot battle to defeat Barger for the Fifth District seat on the Board of Supervisors, he has struck a fiery tone, describing L.A. County’s child-welfare system as befitting “a third-world country.”
Park holds Barger, the longtime chief deputy of current Supervisor Michael Antonovich, responsible.
“She’s been running the office for 15 years,” Park said. “People died on her watch. Money was misspent on her watch.
“She’ll claim she doesn’t need any on-the-job training,” he said. “When your job is to be the oversight to make sure these kids don’t die, to make sure these kids come out as decent human beings, you’ve failed. There’s no measure that says you’re doing this properly.”
Park has never held an elected office, but he worked in the federal Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration before moving to California. He now works with renewable-energy start-ups and teaches a budget policy class at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
Park has put forward eye-catching ideas about how to improve the county’s child-welfare system, the largest in the country.
He suggested using the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to help social workers sidestep traffic jams, and employing ace typists so social workers can dictate their reports over the phone, thereby lessening their constant paperwork demands.
But behind these outré ideas is the conviction that the county can achieve better outcomes and save a lot of money if it invests in prevention strategies. If the county spent money to support individuals at risk of ending up on the street or in prison, it could realize savings by averting costs related to homelessness or incarceration.
“If you move the money around to actually solve the problems, you’ll have crazy money left over,” Park said. “If you can spend a hundredth or a thousandth of the money up front, that is money well spent. Our government seems to not understand this — that whatever it takes, you put the money into prevention.”
The responsibility to improve the lives of systems-involved youth should not fall to public-private partnerships or foundations, according to entrepreneur Park.
“We have $30 billion,” he said. “That’s more than enough to solve these problems. And it’s being misspent.”
Park insists that many issues faced by the county — including the poor educational and health outcomes for former foster youth — could be solved by sometimes-simple solutions.
For example, he proposes offering free community college for every young person who has spent at least 18 months in foster care, along with money for summer camp and music lessons during high school.
“[Foster youth] don’t get necessarily things like summer camp because they’re moved all around,” Park said. “They don’t get the French horn or the clarinet or the ballet lessons or the, whatever it is. And if a lot of those kids aren’t getting that, how can you expect to have a normal human being at the end?”
Park says that youth in Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice could also benefit from low-cost solutions. He suggests the county should adopt a Scandinavian model, where youth are surrounded with learning opportunities
“They wear their little sports coat and their little ties, and it’s sort of like a fancy boarding school, like a Harry Potter thing without all the magic,” Park said.” They have 3D printers. They make robots. They do all this kind of stuff. And at the end of their class day, then they spend a lot of time in counseling. A lot of these kids had horrible stuff happen to them, and they did horrible stuff. And so you need to unpack all this stuff to create a normal, decent human being.”
Park is facing an uphill battle to defeat the much-better-funded Barger, who enjoys support from several prominent political leaders in the county as well as powerful labor groups.
But Park is holding out hope that endorsements from the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the California Democratic Party will matter in an election year where the inflammatory words of presidential candidate Donald Trump has polarized many voters.
Though courts prevented him from linking Barger, a registered Republican, to Trump on his campaign mailers, he is counting on demographics and a fear of Trump to carry him to victory next Tuesday, even though the Board of Supervisors is a nonpartisan office.
“There’s only 30 percent registered Republicans in the district, and Trump has come out and scared those 30 percent registered Republicans,” Park said. “We’re registering folks in the Latino population at a 100 percent higher rate than 2008 or 2012, and those rates were off the chart.”
For Park, L.A. County should spend more time learning from the example of his parents in Virginia and other jurisdictions that are succeeding.
“We have to be in a situation where we’re not kicking the can down the road,” Park said. “We know these things have been solved in other places. Why not spend that money on the things that are really helpful?”
For more coverage of the race for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, click here.