Leader of Nation’s Largest Child Welfare System Announces Unexpected Retirement

After five years at the helm of the largest child welfare system in America, Philip Browning will be retiring from Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

The agency’s 8,800 staff learned about their director’s decision in a memo sent out today.

“This is to notify you that I will be retiring from the county effective January 31, 2017,” Browning wrote. “Over the last 5 years, you have helped to make DCFS a much better department than when I arrived.”

Michael Nash, who heads the county’s recently created Office of Child Protection (OCP), has been engaged in a wide array of projects with the departing Browning.

“First off, I think the county owes him a debt of gratitude for his efforts over the last five years or so,” Nash said. “And I am appreciative of the collaboration that he showed us in the past year that I have been with the OCP.”

When the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors hired him in 2011, he was the third DCFS director in nine months, following interim directors Jackie Contreras and Antonia Jimenez and former chief Trish Ploehn.

Nash pointed out that Browning had been the second longest-serving director of the agency in the past three decades. But he seemed unworried at the prospect that the county could fall into the pattern of a series of short-lived DCFS directors that typified the era before Browning’s arrival.

“I have complete confidence that this Board of Supervisors will find the right person for the job with whom I am certain I will be able to work with,” Nash said.

During his time at the helm of the nation’s largest child welfare system, Browning weathered several high-profile child deaths, including the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2013. The boy’s death sparked the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, a high-profile body that released dozens of recommendations in 2014.

The most prominent recommendation was the creation of an Office of Child Protection to oversee the county’s protection efforts.

Amara Suarez, who works in DCFS’ Office of Public Affairs, said that the announcement was “surprising,” adding that despite the typical fearfulness of the media of many child-welfare directors, Browning was consistently willing to engage with reporters.

“I think my concern is that he [Browning] has been very transparent with media, and that has helped us build relationships with the media,” Suarez said. “I just hope it is someone who believes in that as well who takes his place.”

Browning’s time was also marked by the creation and later closure of the county’s transitional shelters for abused children, Children and Youth Welcome Centers,  as well as new social worker training initiatives.

According to the recently released DCFS 2015-2016 Biennial Report, the department has a budget of $2.2 billion and employs 8,800 workers, including 4,000 children’s social workers. DCFS oversees the cases of roughly 40,000 children. Nearly 18,000 of those children were placed in out-of-home foster care in 2015.

Calls for comment to some members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors—who will ultimately decide Browning’s successor—were not immediately returned.

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story. 

NOTE: An earlier version of this story wrongly stated that there were “nearly 22,000” children placed in foster care according to DCFS’ Biennial Report. It has since been corrected to “nearly 18,000.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this story wrongly stated that Browning had been the longest serving director in the past three decades. He was, in fact, the second longest serving director, behind Peter Digre who served in the 1990’s. 

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