A version of this story was first published in LA Weekly’s news blog.
For more than a year, Los Angeles County, home to the largest child protection system in the world, has been grappling with how to keep its children safe.
Last year, county leaders launched a reform effort that – if executed thoroughly – could serve as model for how to address the child maltreatment threat across the country. L.A.’s hopes are, in large part, tied to the creation of a new Office of Child Protection, which will rely on its bully pulpit to impel the county’s public agencies towards better identifying children at risk of abuse, and protecting them.
Now the county needs to find the right bully.
Rumors have been swirling that Judge Michael Nash, who has served as presiding judge of the county’s sprawling juvenile court for more than a decade-and-a-half, was a top contender to lead the nascent child protection office.
On Wednesday, Nash told The Imprint that he had indeed thrown his hat in the ring, telling recruiters that he wanted the job.
He said that moving from the courts to a highly politicized office was like, “going from the frying pan into the fire.” But years of experience weighing the complexities of child maltreatment and foster care made it almost impossible for him to resist. “Sadly that’s the way it is,” he added with a chuckle.
Dilys Garcia, who heads Los Angeles County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program and works out of Nash’s courthouse, was both sad to see Nash leave the court, and hopeful about his prospects for leading the new office.
“He has been an inspiration to people in the child welfare field,” Garcia said. “Even at the darkest moment he finds a beacon of light to point to. His leaving is going to be a big loss, but I think it would be terrific if he ended up in this new role as child protection czar.”
The idea of an Office of Child Protection was first mentioned in an interim report issued by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection in December of last year.
The commission was established in June 2013, after an internal report pointing to “systemic failures” that compromised children’s safety had been leaked to The Los Angeles Times in February of the same year. Almost thee months later in May, The Times broke its first story on a young boy’s apparently preventable death, and was followed by virtually every media outlet in Los Angeles. The media furor compelled the Board of Supervisors to create a blue ribbon commission and ordered it to come back with a slate of recommendations by the end of the 2013 calendar year.
It would take until April 2014, but the blue ribbon commission eventually issued its final report, a 42-point laundry list of recommendations.
The one that got the most attention was the creation of the Office of Child Protection.
Since the final report was issued, a transition team comprised of some of the original blue ribbon members was established.
Transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie has adamantly kept pressure on the county to enact recommendations laid out by the commission, at times venting her frustration about the county supervisors’ commitment to moving reforms moving apace.
“Progress is being made,” Leslie Gilbert-Lurie said. “More conversations are taking place across agencies. Slowly, certain recommendations have begun to be implemented.”
An impediment has been county officials’ insistence that many of the recommendations must wait until the new child protection office is created. Thirteen of 33 action items outlined in timeline to implement reforms produced by the transition team are contingent on the naming of the new leader.
While Gilbert-Lurie would not comment on the prospect of Nash taking on that role, she did explain what she and her colleagues are trying to do in their limited capacity to set up the eventual czar.
“The transition team’s role is to give the new director a running start when they take over,” she said. “So they are not starting from day one; that the information we gathered and some of the pressure we kept on the system along the way allows them step in a couple of months ahead.”
While it is still unclear when the new director will be named, Nash knows where he would start if granted the opportunity.
“Dead children were the catalyst for this whole process, okay, so that needs to be the initial focus in my opinion,” Nash said.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections, the publisher of The Imprint and a lecturer at USC Price School of Public Policy.