Director Wanted: Nation’s Largest Child Welfare Agency Seeks Leader

Philip Browning’s five-year tenure as director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children’s Services (DCFS) concludes tomorrow, and the search for his replacement is underway.

Brandon Nichols, who served as chief deputy under Browning, was recently named acting director. If Nichols becomes a candidate to lead the department long-term, it appears he will be up against candidates from across the country, assuming the few candidates with the necessary qualifications want such a high-pressure job.

Top picks could also be considering the now vacant leadership position at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. Gladys Carríon, former commissioner of the department, resigned in December following a succession of high-profile child deaths.

“I expect that the search will be comprehensive, taking into consideration local child welfare experts who are familiar with county operations and the Los Angeles region as well as accomplished administrators from outside the region who are nimble, innovative, and can readily adapt to the size and scope of a $2.2 [billion] department that employs nearly 9,000 people, fields more than 200,000 child abuse and neglect reports annually, and serves nearly 35,000 children and families,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in an email statement.

David Sanders, who served as DCFS director from 2003 to 2006 and is now executive vice president for the national child welfare policy group Casey Family Programs, said the job is often hard to fill, but could be easier if the Board of Supervisors sends positive signals to candidates.

“I know in previous times the perception has been that it’s been very difficult to fill, but I think the board can send signals that can attract very strong candidates,” Sanders said. “The community support is unprecedented and unmatched anyplace else in the country. But people have to work for somebody, and they will want to work for a board that’s supportive, and I think that’s going to be the key.”

Sanders said the biggest challenge for position is reporting to five different supervisors who are all prominent and powerful.

“Ideally, somebody will have experience working for multiple bodies because it’s very different from working for a governor or a mayor,” Sanders said.

Being familiar with Los Angeles is helpful, he added, and if someone from afar is chosen “the person needs to be committed to getting to know Los Angeles very quickly.”

People with decades of experience running nonprofits that work with DCFS say finding the right person to run the nation’s largest child welfare system is a difficult endeavor.

“It’s quite a job,” said Martha Matthews, directing attorney of the Children’s Rights Project at Public Counsel. “There’s probably less than 20 people in the country who could really do it well, and those people already have jobs, so I don’t envy whoever’s on the search committee.”

In the past, there has been significant turnover in DCFS’s top job. When the L.A. Board of Supervisors hired Browning in 2011, he was the third DCFS director in nine months, following interim directors Jackie Contreras and Antonia Jimenez and former chief Trish Ploehn. Browning’s five years at the helm have made him the third-longest serving DCFS director in the past three decades.

High-profile child deaths and the ensuing public outcry and media coverage have contributed to that turnover.

But right now, the department has some discernible mandates and its staff has been bolstered by recent hiring, so it might be an opportune time to take the job, Matthews and others said.

The 2014 recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection and the new strategic plan developed by the Office of Child Protection, which is led by Michael Nash, can help guide DCFS’ next leader, Matthews said. Also, the local implementation of Continuum of Care Reform – a new California law that aims to reduce the use of group homes for foster youth – is a clear mandate for the next director, she added.

DCFS added waves of social workers to the rolls during Browning’s term. Browning told The Los Angeles Times that during his tenure more than 2,000 social workers have been added to the staff.

David Green, a children’s social worker at the department and a longtime leader of the local labor union that represents his colleagues, said he was happy with Browning’s leadership and hopes the next director continues the progress Browning has made.

“He’s a man of his word,” Green said of Browning. “If he said he was going to do something he did it, and that means a lot in the world I live in.”

Green, the treasurer of SEIU Local 721, which represents 90,000 public sector workers including DCFS’ social workers, said he hopes the next director prioritizes continuing to lower caseloads for social workers and launching a coaching and mentoring program for social workers that has already been approved by the Board of Supervisors.

CREDIT: DCFS; Philip Browning welcoming new social workers

Kathy Icenhower, executive director of Shields for Families, a Compton-based nonprofit that serves families, is less keen on the department’s current performance and would prefer a director who is more devoted to keeping families together.

“I think we have demonstrated in the past that when we put our efforts at keeping families together that we have positive outcomes,” Icenhower said. “Right now L.A. County is sitting with a failing mark on every single federal goal and objective. So there’s a lot of room for growth.”

Icenhower frequently praises the leadership of Sanders, who left the department for Casey Family Programs in 2006, and would like to see him return, but concedes that is unlikely.

“I’m looking for someone who believes in families first and that we can get back to what we’ve done before with upfront assessments, a lot of engagement and keeping families together,” she said.

Icenhower said the search committee should consider the leaders of other department that she thinks are succeeding, namely Santa Clara County and Ventura County.

Who might some of the candidates be?

Some advocates say that California native Rafael López, recently departed director of the federal Administration for Children, Youth and Families, would be a good candidate for the job. López, who was appointed by Barack Obama in 2014, is now out of a job.

From 2006 to 2009, López worked in Los Angeles as executive director of the City of Los Angeles Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families.

“Rafael has obviously a high-level position in the federal government and knows about management,” Sanders said. “I don’t know enough about his background, but getting somebody from the Children’s Bureau would be quite a coup.”

Fesia Davenport, who worked under Browning at DCFS and served as interim director of the Office of Child Protection, told The Imprint that she does not want the job.

“I am very happy working in the [County Executive Office],” Davenport said in an email. “I am not looking for a career change at all, and more specifically am not interested in the DCFS Director position.”

Michael Nash, the director of the Office of Child Protection who previously served as presiding judge of the county’s dependency and delinquency courts, declined to comment on his interest in the position.

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