Failure to Thrive

It has been 109 days since Los Angeles County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection (BRC) issued its final recommendations on how to reform the county’s vast child welfare apparatus.

Over that time, the county’s powerful Board of Supervisors (BOS) has taken steps that exude a sense of action. But actual improvements that would help children today remain hard to define.

On August 5, the organization I run, Fostering Media Connections, released a “checkup” on the developmental health of child protection reform in Los Angeles County.

“It’s likely too early to know whether or not the reform’s development is delayed, but it is clearly not precocious,” we wrote.

There are numerous reasons for this less-than-rosy assessment. An inordinate amount of attention spent on one of the BRC’s 42 recommendations, and the death of a key member of a newly minted “transition team” charged with moving the BRC recommendations forward, have understandably slowed momentum. But still, pre-packaged solutions have been left waiting, and a pair of key BRC-related meetings have been delayed, suggesting that child protection reform is not necessarily the central county concern the supervisors had made it out to be when they launched the whole BRC saga more than a year ago.

On June 18, 2013, after the county had been buffeted by bad press centering on the death of a Palmdale boy and a leaked internal review pointing to numerous systemic failings at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the Board of Supervisors voted to create the Blue Ribbon Commission. The motion creating the commission pointed to years of failed attempts at serious reform, which resulted in “unclear or arguably inadequate” results.

To fix this, the supervisors stocked their newly formed commission with heavyweights in the field of child welfare. During the eight months that the Blue Ribbon Commission held meetings and investigated the county’s child welfare system, some supervisors expressed support in a stream of public statements and motions.

This review process culminated on June 10, when the supervisors voted 4-1 to approve all the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations. The one proposal that got the most attention was to create an eventual Office of Child Protection, which, if ever realized as the commission had envisioned, would have the power to “transcend structure and propose the movement of financial and staff resources without regard to department lines.”

This language prompted us to write that the BRC had proposed creating a “child safety czar” in a story that ran in January. For better or—in this case likely—worse, the label stuck.

With focus set on creating the bureaucracy to sustain this new Office of Child Protection other reforms lost steam.

On June 25, the BOS announced a nine-member “transition team” charged with offering the supervisors advice on child safety recommendations, coming up with some cost analysis and determining the size and scope of the Office of Child Protection. The team was partially comprised of some holdovers from the BRC, who would, in theory, help push forward the larger reform package.

One of the strongest proponents of the Office of Child Protection had been BRC commissioner and transition team member Andrea Rich, who unfortunately, passed away late last month.

On July 30, the transition team issued a report on its progress. Four of the five pages in the document focus on the type of leader the group was looking for. The fifth outlines the transition team’s roles and responsibilities, and includes mention of the medical hubs that received sustained attention by the Board of Supervisors and the BRC, and how to best use public health nurses in child protection.

Notably absent was any discussion of two BRC recommendations that seem achievable in the short term.

Back in February, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas issued a motion asking the District Attorney’s (DA) office for a proposal to improve its child abuse reporting system. In April, the DA’s office sent along a plan, asking for three paralegals and an attorney to beef up its electronic child abuse reporting system and its oversight of the county’s 46 law enforcement agencies when responding to allegations of child abuse. When county Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka released his recommended budget in April, he mentioned the DA’s request but didn’t add it as a line item.

When we queried Ridley-Thomas’ office and other supervisors’ staff, we were told that items like the DA’s request would be rolled into the work of the transition team.

The same goes for the BRC’s recommendation to increase funding to family members who take in their kin. In California, unrelated caregivers are routinely paid double what relative caregivers receive. On June 20, Governor Jerry Brown included a $30 million allocation so that counties could pay kin and non-related caregivers equally. The opt-in date is October 1. There has been no apparent action by the county to either take advantage of that funding, or re-allocate its existing flexible funding to increase payments to relative caregivers.

Beyond fixes that could be further examined or implemented immediately, the county has twice postponed key presentations associated with the BRC. The final presentation of the BRC’s recommendations had originally been slated for May 20, but was pushed until June 10. And the transition team presentation scheduled for August 5 was moved to August 12.

Despite the reform effort’s apparent failure to thrive, some on the transition team are determined to see the commission’s recommendations advanced.

“I hope that we can do this and move things along quickly,” said transition team member Patricia Curry during a July 28 meeting. “The Blue Ribbon [Commission] was clear about the need to makes changes today.”

But the Blue Ribbon Commission is no longer at the helm of child protection reform in LA County.

The transition team presents to the Board of Supervisors on August 12.

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Imprint. 

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