Los Angeles Child Protection Checkup

Credit: Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors The 640-seat Supervisor's hearing room, as seen from their perspective.

Credit: Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
The 640-seat Supervisor’s hearing room, as seen from their perspective.

In June of last year, Los Angeles County created a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on Child Protection, charged with coming up with a plan to better prevent child abuse and protect children who had been victims of maltreatment.

Los Angeles is more populous than 43 U.S. states, and it constitutes the single largest child welfare system in the nation. What happens here sets the tone for child protection policy across the country.

L.A.’s blue ribbon commission was created in reaction to a scathing report delineating “front-end failures” that had contributed to child deaths within the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and the high profile death of an eight-year-old boy named Gabriel Fernandez.

The BRC is not the first commission or task force created out of tragedy to improve child protection.  But, having watched L.A.’s child protection reform process progress, I am hopeful that what is happening across sprawling Los Angeles County will somehow be different. Further, there is the unique possibility that if this process yields real gains, it will serve to enlighten other jurisdictions currently reeling under the pressure of seemingly preventable child deaths.

Today, we at Fostering Media Connections released our second quarterly “Checkup” on the developmental health of Los Angeles County’s child protection reform effort. In the 100-odd days since we last took such a comprehensive look at the reform process there have been some notable gains:

  • The Board of Supervisors approved $1.23 million to beef up law enforcement’s response to child abuse.
  • DCFS finished designing a risk-modeling tool to help prevent critical incidents of child abuse and death.
  • The department took the first step towards accessing a new pot of state funds to increase foster care payments to family members who take in their kin.
  • The BRC’s “transition team” charged with maintaining the reform effort made headway towards naming a child protection czar to oversee a new Office of Child Protection designed to integrate services to better protect the county’s children.

Such gains are important, not just for Los Angeles, but across the country.

The other child protection reform process I have paid close attention to is playing out in Minnesota. In September, The Minnesota Star Tribune published the horrible tale of a four-year-old boy who was killed by his stepmother, despite numerous referrals to child protective services. Much like Gabriel Fernandez in Los Angeles, Eric Dean’s short life and brutal death pointed to systemic failures that impeded adequate attention to a child’s safety.

Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, convened a Task Force on the Protection of Children, and instructed it to issue a slate of reforms to improve the child protection system.

The issues there and in Los Angeles are basically the same. In both cases, the respective child protective systems are scrambling to deal with a child maltreatment threat that they could never really handle on their own.

The child welfare establishments of both areas would likely agree that preventing child maltreatment and adequately protecting children requires the integration of multiple systems. But as much as they may see that reality, the political will has never been there to undertake the daunting task of such integration.

That is why the reform process in Los Angeles is so important.

The first monetary allocation was not to DCFS alone, but rather to DCFS and the District Attorney’s office to improve the shared Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting system. If ever implemented fully, the system would allow the county’s 46 law enforcement agencies and DCFS to immediately share child abuse reports, theoretically closing the kind of surveillance gaps that can result in child fatalities.

The other key component is the creation of an Office of Child Protection. It is clear that the original mandate envisioned by the BRC, wherein the office’s director would have the power to dictate budgets and staffing across departments, has been eroded. But having a watchdog fighting to ensure that child-serving departments dedicate serious resources to child protection could be highly effective.

Since November 2013, The Imprint has published 39 stories on the BRC reform process. These stories have been linked to, reposted or followed by alternative and mainstream news outlets 34 times.

We are doing our best to keep this effort in the spotlight. Please read this latest Checkup, and make your voice heard on the reform process. We welcome opinion pieces from interested parties.

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

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