L.A. Supervisor Kathryn Barger Vows to Hold a Bureaucracy That’s ‘Killing Kids’ Accountable

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion introduced by Sup. Kathryn Barger aimed at recruiting and retaining child welfare workers in the Antelope Valley and its high desert communities of Lancaster and Palmdale.

The action comes in response to the death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro on July 6, and firmly underscores the leading role that Barger (whose district Noah died in) aims to play in the unfolding county crisis.

While Noah’s parents claim he drowned, the Sheriff’s Department said his injuries were inconsistent with drowning. The young boy had long been known to the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and law enforcement agencies, according to The Los Angeles Times. The Times reported – and The Imprint’s sources have confirmed – that back in May, a juvenile court commissioner ordered the boy physically removed from his parent’s custody out of concern that he would be harmed. That order was unheeded by DCFS caseworkers, sparking swift change to department policy regarding “removal orders” but leaving the public guessing as to what exactly happened in the run-up to Noah’s death.

Tuesday’s motion orders key county agencies to report back in 45 days with a plan to hire workers to the Lancaster and Palmdale offices in order to reduce heavy caseloads and high rates of worker attrition. It also orders “DCFS to immediately implement a Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) section and fill approximately 20 positions that will provide a systemic structure that supports the consistent provision of quality case work practices by increasing the number of case reviews, and begin by focusing on the Antelope Valley offices.”

DCFS Director Bobby Cagle listens to testimony during the July 23 Board of Supervisors meeting. Photo: Daniel Heimpel

During the board meeting Tuesday, Barger pointed to the desperate need for such a unit in her opening remarks.

Shortly after the vote, I pulled Barger aside to discuss Noah’s case, her motion and what she believes she must do in the aftermath of this latest high-profile child death, the third to strike the Antelope Valley in six years.

So your motion went through. How do you feel about that?

It’s unfortunate that it takes an action like today, in response to a death to make things happen. As I said last week, no more report-backs, we’re going to take swift action.

As it relates to the Antelope Valley, we’ve known that there’s an issue with staffing. We need to look at the root cause as to why social workers are transferring out of the Antelope Valley and fix it, because we can get a new hire but the minute a transfer comes through, they’re gonna transfer out. So today I’m hopeful that we’ve turned the page. And not with the social worker, but with the administration, and with this board, and addressing this not only as it relates to the Antelope Valley, but across the board in the department.

It’s really odd that a court order wasn’t followed, a removal order. This doesn’t happen very often. You probably can’t talk in any detail, but when are we going to know anything about what the hell happened there?

They’re doing their investigation and I don’t want to compromise the investigation, so I am going to let the Sheriff’s Department take the lead on that. But, I can’t, unfortunately, discuss all that.

You are a 20-year-plus vet of the Antelope Valley after working for your predecessor, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, as his children’s deputy and then chief deputy. In 2016, when The Imprint hosted a forum for candidates for L.A.’s fifth supervisorial district, you talked about staffing issues in the Antelope Valley. Why did it take so long to get here?

We have addressed this — we’ve been hiring. The problem is the retention. So, understand this — the hiring is not the issue; it is keeping them.

I made that a point: We hire, and our vacancy rate is not what it has been in the past, but it’s not enough just to hire; you’ve got to keep them there. You’ve got to have seasoned social workers, especially in the Antelope Valley, where you’ve got complicated caseloads. So I stand behind the commitment I’ve made, but now it’s about retention of those caseworkers.

And, unfortunately, I was pretty heated last week, because things get studied here to death. And I’m not going to wait for studies to take place in terms of financial incentives and all that. We know what needs to be done – so just do it. And that’s where I think I had it with the bureaucracy, and I said that last week: The bureaucracy’s gonna kill us, and it’s killing kids.

So what’s your role in all of this? It’s your district after all.

Accountability. And my role is to hold all people accountable. The buck can’t stop with the board, the buck’s gotta stop with the department as well.

So I told the board no longer are we doing report-backs. Each week, if we have to call them [department heads] here and hold them accountable, we will. Working with our social workers, because social workers are the ones that are being truly thrown under the bus. And I find it unfortunate because on the one hand we’re trying to attract social workers, and on the other hand, this has a chilling effect on social workers and you can see the rates of kids being pulled out their homes go up because social workers are petrified that they could be the next casualty of what’s going on.

So what’s next? I’m going to do what I was elected to do, and that is hold not only myself accountable, but bureaucracy accountable. And I think that’s more important than holding social workers accountable at this point.

Mauricio Tellez-Sanchez contributed to this story.

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