Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s decades-long career in policymaking and public service has deep roots. Her parents met while both worked as county social workers. Sylvia Johnson, Mitchell’s mother, later worked as the warden of a California state prison and chief probation officer of Alameda County.
For her part, Mitchell, 57, served 10 years in the California Legislature, becoming chair of the Senate’s powerful budget committee and one of the state’s leading champions for families living in poverty. In Sacramento, she fought for expanding the state’s welfare-to-work program, helped make California the first state to prohibit adult prosecutions of youth under the age of 16 and championed the rights of relative caregivers for foster children.
Mitchell, a third-generation Angeleno, left the state capitol in 2020 following her election to the five-member board of supervisors. The county oversees safety-net programs for about 10 million people, a number greater than the population of 41 states.
As current chair of the board of supervisors, Mitchell leads the search for the next head of the $2.9 billion Department of Children and Family Services, which includes nearly 9,000 employees and supervises approximately 17,000 children placed in foster care. Next month, interviews begin to replace former director Bobby Cagle, who stepped down in December citing exhaustion after the demanding first years of the coronavirus pandemic.
The selection of a new leader comes amid urgent calls for L.A. County to reform its child welfare system and address deep racial disparities. Despite making up about 8% of the county’s children, Black kids comprise roughly 27% of those in the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services.
In November, the recently formed Reimagine Child Safety Coalition called on Mitchell and her fellow supervisors to stop bringing so many Black and brown children into foster care solely because their parents are poor, or experiencing domestic violence. They also want the county to stop the mandatory hospital drug-testing of mothers and newborns, a frequent cause for family separation that advocates say can be avoided with other interventions.
L.A. County’s child welfare system is also under financial duress. The county is lobbying the state for $200 million from this year’s budget to help fill a roughly $350 million shortfall for the Department of Children and Family Services. In the interim, hundreds of jobs have been left unfilled.
Mitchell has worked on several groundbreaking efforts to aid vulnerable families in L.A. County. She says she wants to end “racist, sexist policies” and replace them with “real policies to bring equity to communities that have historically been under-resourced.”
With that goal in mind, the South Los Angeles supervisor helped pass a “blind removal” plan that takes effect this summer. The method requires that information about children’s race and geography be kept from social workers deciding whether to remove them from their homes.
And at the end of this month, L.A. County will launch its Breathe program, a guaranteed income pilot project for low-income adults proposed by Supervisor Mitchell. The program will provide 1,000 residents with $1,000 per month for three years, and could work to stabilize families at risk of losing their children to foster care.
Mitchell recently talked to The Imprint about the need for racial equity in L.A. County’s child welfare system, her hopes for a new Department of Children and Family Services director and the challenges of expanding extended foster care to youth who are 21 and older.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Earlier this year, you said you were looking for “the right leader for the right time” to head L.A. County’s child welfare system. Can you explain what that means?
When I was a young staffer working with the Legislature working for [former state and federal politician] Diane Watson, I watched the crack epidemic overwhelm the system. I also grew up hearing stories from my mother primarily, who was a social worker, talking about how poverty is multi-generational and how poverty just overwhelms the system.
And here we are in 2022, navigating a dual pandemic — both a public health and economic pandemic — and all the research shows the role poverty plays in increasing the likelihood a child will be touched by not only the child welfare system, but any system. We’re thinking about services we can bring to bear on the front-end, upstream, to help families provide for and care for their kids and work collaboratively with our partners across government to do that.
This is the time to step in, and to identify a true visionary leader who understands that there’s really kind of a core difference between child protection and child and family well-being — and that we need to design a child welfare system that addresses both appropriately.
You presented a successful motion last year creating California’s first “blind removals” pilot project. What struck you about other efforts to implement this colorblind social work practice?
I’m really looking forward to seeing how that rolls out and what we can learn from that experience as many other municipalities have. It’s undeniable that we have a disproportionate number of Black and brown kids in the system, and we have to ask ourselves the hard questions around what role bias potentially could — implicit or otherwise — be playing.
We have a responsibility to continue to have this conversation, particularly in the county where the board of supervisors had the courage and vision to create an anti-racist initiative and to have anti-Black focused conversations in the policymaking arena. The same must apply to this critical role we play in protecting the safety and well-being of children — and making sure that implicit bias doesn’t play a covert or overt role in which children are removed and why.
A part of the blind removal process is also the training, the conversations about implicit bias and the acknowledgement that it’s something that we all have. We have to go deeper than people merely saying, “I’m not racist.” That’s a sophomoric kind of attitude to have when we’re really talking about the role systemic racism plays in government systems. Our child welfare system has much work to do to address the bias that’s inherent in the system historically, and to address what steps we can take to acknowledge that and course-correct.
There’s a lot of momentum in L.A. County right now about how to “reimagine” child protection, like reducing removals that might be driven by poverty-related neglect as opposed to child abuse. Are there things the county can learn from some of these discussions?
One thing I think that has been clear for many years that we’ve not maybe addressed head on is understanding the role poverty plays in children entering the system.
Our guaranteed income program here in L.A. County is one perfect example of ways in which we could help families by giving families a guaranteed basic income and empowering them to make the decisions about what’s best for their families. Our government entitlement programs are rife with access tests and hoops that we make poor people jump through that really symbolize this kind of collective vision of poor people — that they deserve to be, or they’re lazy.
The point of being engaged in this national conversation is to really think much more broadly about how we prevent people from getting into the system in the first place by fundamentally understanding what families need to be whole, supported and self-sustaining. We need to decriminalize poverty, and to get people the true kind of support, which basically is increasing the income they need to live healthier, fuller lives.
L.A. County is currently asking California to chip in about $200 million to make up a roughly $350 million deficit for the Department of Children and Family Services. What led to this shortfall?
It’s a structural deficit, but it’s nothing new. The county has found one-time funding opportunities to kind of keep us afloat for a number of years. And we’ve now gotten to the point where we don’t have any more tools in our toolbox. It really is a result of the series of actions at the federal level and the state level. We’ve been dealing with a significant reduction of our federal Title IV-E waiver dollars, as well as the increased cost of extended foster care.
The state realigned child welfare services a number of years ago — and they may say it was because it makes better sense if the policy area happened at the county level — but realignment more often than not is about cost-savings to whatever local government is being realigned to the next.
We need to make sure that the funding from the state that formerly paid for it flows at a level that allows us to continue to provide high quality services, and rarely does that happen. This is not a handout. This is an acknowledgement that our ability to follow state law and expand programs as state law stipulated does compromise our ability to afford our own system.
What are your concerns about extended foster care, which is a voluntary program that provides financial and housing support to young adults ages 18 to 21?
The problem with the brilliant idea of extended foster care was that we made some false assumptions — and I don’t know why — that the uptake on the transition-age youth would be slower and lower. When you consider the number of children for decades now who have aged out of the system, I’m not sure why that assumption was made. They thought it would be easier. Quite the contrary.
This is also a population that, again, has aged out of the system and therefore needs more support to be self-sufficient and independent. And so we probably should have funded it at a higher level.
Is this something that can be addressed with legislative change?
First and foremost, we need to make sure that Sacramento and the federal government understand the fiscal implications of policy-making. There have been conversations for years to expand foster care to an even higher age. And so before we do that, let’s make sure that we learn from the past policy moves.
We need to actually fund the kinds of services and supports that transition-age youth actually need, not our guesstimates — like that case management for them would require less intensive services. That’s not what we’ve learned. So before we expand it anymore, we’ve got to provide the kinds of services these kids really need.