On the campaign trail, Board of Supervisors candidate Bobby Shriver recognizes a familiar face when he talks with social workers in Los Angeles County.
Growing up as the son of Special Olympics founder and social worker Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Shriver says that the struggles of caseworkers in the child welfare system remind him of his mother.
“As a kid, I remember my mom was frustrated with the way with the way things were happening,” Shriver said, recalling his mother’s work in the Illinois juvenile justice system in the 1950s. “I grew up watching her assemble social workers at our house and figure out how to create programs for whatever funding streams in Illinois in the ‘50s and then in D.C. later.”
“She was quite impatient, and the social workers that I’ve seen, or at least the ones that come up to me after meetings and want to have a coffee, tend to be frustrated too.”
In his bid to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on Los Angeles County’s influential Board of Supervisors, Shriver has painted a portrait of a county severely hampered by an entrenched bureaucracy that has frequently hindered the best efforts of its workforce, including many social workers. In an interview with The Imprint, he described his ideas on how to bring reform to the child welfare system in Los Angeles, a plan that hinges on encouraging new programmatic approaches informed by his private-sector experience.
Shriver is facing off with Sheila Kuehl for the opportunity to represent the board’s third district. If he’s chosen by voters in the general election on November 4, Shriver will help govern a county that stretches across more than 4,000 square miles and is home to almost 10 million residents. In terms of its population, L.A. County is larger than 43 states.
The five-member Board of Supervisors wields sizeable power, including a $25 billion county budget and oversight of a sprawling social- and human-services bureaucracy. With more than 20,000 children in foster care as of April 2014, Los Angeles County’s child protection system is the largest in the country and in the midst of potentially sweeping reforms that could result in dramatic restructuring.
In June, the Board of Supervisors approved the final recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, after an eight-month review of the county’s policies and practices around child protection that resulted in more than 40 suggestions to improve the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children in the county.
Moving forward, two new members of the Board of Supervisors will play an instrumental role in helping implement and fund the reform process. Advocates like the Alliance for Children’s Rights President Janis Spire hope that the incoming board members will be open to new approaches to address a sometimes-dysfunctional child welfare system, where responsibility for child safety is scattered across several different departments and 88 different municipalities.
“If you look at the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, there’s a lot to things the Board of Supervisors could do to help improve child welfare,” Spire said. “We hope [the new members of the Board of Supervisors] will be committed to really doing things differently.”
Shriver has made the pursuit of new ideas at the core of his campaign for the Board of Supervisors. A self-described “innovation person,” Shriver says Los Angeles County needs to be shaken up.
“I’m more disposed emotionally and intellectually to solve a problem with a new idea that hasn’t been tried before,” Shriver says.
“I don’t want to be sitting here in 10 years with a new study showing me how the child welfare system has yet again failed this group of children. We’ve got a series of those studies already.”
“There’s has to be something that can be done that will shift us out of that and if that’s performance-based contracting in part, we have to take a serious look at it,” said Shriver.
Shriver points to a discussion at the Board of Supervisors meeting on July 29 about creating a mental-health diversion program that would route some offenders into mental-health programs instead of the county’s overcrowded system of jails as an example of how the long-serving board has not always been open to hearing new ways to address the county’s enduring issues
“Supervisor Yaroslavsky said at the meeting that the conversation about diversion was the first discussion of the topic he had heard in the 20-plus years he’s been on the board,” Shriver said. “It’s incredible to me that none of supervisors had brought forward that suggestion in 20 years.”
“While it’s always not great to lose that experience and knowledge of people who have been around for a long time, it’s probably a wise idea to get some people in who want to have a conversation about these things and are motivated to bring those topics forward.”
After a kerfuffle with the city of Santa Monica about an untrimmed hedge at his home persuaded Shriver to run for the a seat on the city council, Shriver served for eight years on the Santa Monica City Council, including a stint as mayor. Prior to his tenure in city government, Shriver worked as a venture capitalist, lawyer, and philanthropist. Rather than his family lineage—he is the brother of Maria Shriver and a nephew of President John F. Kennedy—Shriver believes his private-sector experience may be most helpful in bringing change to the county.
“This kind of private-sector energy and outcome-oriented thinking as opposed to process-oriented thinking in one of the five members on the board would be a useful thing,” he said. “One of the hardest things for the government to do is to change, unlike the private sector. It’s kind of hard to change if you don’t have a competitor. I favor innovation and I favor competition. I think it sharpens everybody involved and makes for better decisions and better outcomes for the people using the services.”
Shriver holds up his pursuit of new programs to address homelessness during his time in Santa Monica as a model for how he would seek different solutions for the child-welfare system in Los Angeles County.
“I’ve been studying these things trying to see if there are smart ideas out there that could brought to L.A.,” he said. “Are there smart ideas within the bureaucracy in LA that social workers that could be brought to scale? Are there computer systems that could relieve social workers from all this paper-filling-out time and give them more time to devote to their clients? I’m constantly studying that stuff and trying to see what the best practices are and how it could be done and how it could be financed.”
If elected, Shriver says that his strategy for encouraging reform around child welfare would be to seek out like-minded people in the county and promote their ideas for change. “I have an instinctive ability to recognize people who are innovators and to support them and work with them,” he said. “I’ve been an innovator myself. I know how to spot people like that. What I needed in Santa Monica for homelessness, for example, is the same thing that’s going to be needed here: some internal champions who want to change. You need to find them and back them.”
Bothered by persistent issues in the child welfare system that remain largely unaddressed, Shriver says he will attack problems with tenacity and personal oversight to ensure that lingering problems do not continue.
“I would stick a fork through my hand if the computer system hasn’t been fixed in four years if I’m there, running for re-election,” he said, referring to the outmoded computer system used by county social workers. “I do have a plan, but the most important element of the plan is that when I say I’m going to absolutely do something, I mean it. I’m going to call people all day long and on the weekend. It has to be followed through on a daily basis. I’ve just never seen [change happen] by committees or consultants, that kind of way.”
Shriver feels that his enthusiasm for innovation in the child welfare system is shared by many employees in the county and will be a factor in getting many caseworkers to participate in changing a system that hasn’t always been receptive to reform.
“What happens in my experience, when people feel that level of determination, they respond to it because it means something will get done,” he said. “Social workers want to succeed and get good outcomes—measurable outcomes—and to be recognized on a national level as having done a lot of great stuff. And I think when I get in there, I think I’ll find a lot of people in the Department of Children and Family Services who will also want to do innovative stuff. I’m certain of it.”
Jeremy Loudenback is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.