Yet another evaluation of the nation’s largest local child welfare system is now underway, this time with a focus on assessing the Department of Children and Family Services’ programs, management structure and finances.
The latest audit of the department was approved Tuesday in a 3-2 vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, adding to ongoing challenges. The county agency is currently seeking a new director after Bobby Cagle stepped down late last year, implementing sweeping reforms to comply with new federal funding mandates and facing a budget deficit of more than $300 million.
“Given the vast changes underway, it’s a good time for us to initiate this inventory and assessment in order to adjust and improve as needed,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who called for the audit with Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
In the supervisors’ motion, Hahn and Barger note that the department has been the subject of a number of evaluations in recent years, but has not yet addressed a “recurring list of recommendations” for reform and improvement.
The audit approved at Tuesday’s meeting is one of several in recent years. Following the 2013 death of a young boy under the department’s supervision, the county created a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection to recommend reforms. In 2019, a state audit criticized the department for failing to complete safety assessments in a timely manner. And in 2020, the Board hired a consultant to assess how the county’s child welfare system could address systemic racism and racial disparities among the families it investigates and monitors.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell noted all that scrutiny at the meeting, stating: “This probably is one of the county departments that has been analyzed and evaluated and audited more than any other.”
The supervisors’ motion passed Tuesday directs an outside consultant to create an index of each of the programs run by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) with information on staffing, costs, how many families are served, and whether the offerings are evidence-based and culturally competent. Similar scrutiny will be given to pilot projects and other initiatives that the Board of Supervisors directed the department to implement. The audit will also look at the current management structure, training processes, property holdings and how data is used in the course of the department’s work with children and families.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mitchell expressed concerns that launching a new audit before a new department director has been named could hinder recruitment efforts or result in duplicative efforts.
Kuehl pointed out that the department is already undergoing an evaluation of many of the same issues the new audit aims to address. And Mitchell questioned the wisdom of spending money on yet another outside consultant when the department is already struggling with a hefty deficit.
Still, the plan had some notable support from the community and local child welfare leaders.
Wendy Garen, a member of the Commission for Children and Families, submitted a letter of support for the motion, suggesting that revising the department’s practices now will help ensure they are in line with new federal standards. The full commission voted against supporting the measure. The American Civil Liberties Union, writing as a member of the Reimagine Child Welfare Coalition, also shared a letter in support of an audit, but tempered their approval by saying it does not go far enough and should focus on bolstering community-based services and prevention efforts rather than strengthening and expanding the child welfare agency.
David Green, president of the local SEIU chapter representing the county’s child welfare social workers, urged the board to pass the motion and involve frontline workers in the audit’s process.
“This examination will not only help us to understand best practices within DCFS but will assist in outlining ways we as frontline workers, community advocates, and this board can further work together on the preservation of child safety,” Green said at Tuesday’s virtual public meeting.
Results of the audit will return to supervisors in 90 days and include input from the county’s Youth Commission, Commission for Children and Families, and the Office of Child Protection.
This story has been updated to include the results of a vote by the Commission for Children and Families.