A coalition of Los Angeles County child welfare leaders, frustrated by the slow pace of child welfare reform in the county, has called for the replacement of Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning.
“Currently, our child welfare system has no leadership,” the coalition wrote in a petition it is circulating to garner support for a leadership change. The petition also said Browning’s tenure has led to “low morale and high turnover amongst staff.”
At a “town hall” gathering in Inglewood late last week, hundreds of blue t-shirt-clad supporters who showed up at the First Church of God were urged to sign the petition. The coalition plans to submit the signatures of its newest petition at the December 5th Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The county recently approved a slate of reform recommendations from its own Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection (BRC). But the Los Angeles County Community Child Welfare Coalition said the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has been too slow on reform and too quick to remove children from their parents.
“Nothing seems to be happening at this point,” said Kathryn Icenhower, CEO of Shields for Families and a member of the coalition. “I don’t see any of those [BRC] recommendations being implemented. The only progress we’ve seen is the continued escalation of the number of children in foster care. Ultimately, someone has to be accountable.”
The coalition is made up of Los Angeles County service providers, legal organizations, parents, foster youth, advocacy groups and faith-based organizations. Among the notable attendees from the gathering on Friday:
- Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth
- California State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-30th District)
- David Sanders, vice president of programs at Casey Family Programs and chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission
- Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles’ Juvenile Court and aspirant for role of county child protection czar
- Cheryl Grills, co-executive director of the Blue Ribbon Commission
- Kathryn Icenhower, CEO of Shields for Families in Los Angeles
- Elvia Torres, executive director of SPIRITT Family Services
The Blue Ribbon Commission authored its final report on April 18. It included dozens of recommendations aimed at addressing a system under strain.
The most ambitious suggestion was the creation of an Office of Child Protection (OCP) that would coordinate the Department of Children and Family Services, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Health Services, and the many other agencies that have hand in Los Angeles County’s foster care system.
“I know the Board [of Supervisors] is conducting interviews for the Office of Child Protection right now, and I hope that person has a deep history of working in child welfare but also someone who is able to think outside of the box and someone who, most of all, believes in a holistic approach to helping families,” said U.S. Rep Bass, in an interview with The Imprint.
Now, as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is poised to select a director for the new OCP, the coalition is pushing for the ouster of a key department head that would report to the office. From the petition: “The leadership qualities necessary to move our child welfare system out of its current ‘State of Emergency’ are severely lacking in Director Browning and his executive management team.”
DCFS was quick to defend Browning in a statement issued on Monday.
“Mr. Browning, with the support of the Board of Supervisors and with our partners in the Service Employees International Union, has made a number of helpful changes” that have “helped DCFS meet or exceed most State and Federal performance measures for a child welfare agency,” said the statement from DCFS Public Affairs Director Armand Montiel.
Among the points of progress noted by Montiel:
- Hiring an additional 450 social workers to reduce caseloads.
- Implementing a new Simulation Lab training, developed with local universities, that better prepares social workers to make home calls and conduct child safety assessments.
- Providing social workers with smart phones so that they can more easily share information and documents, which has improved their efficiency.
The coalition’s primary focus is ensuring that future OCP and DCFS leadership improve the county’s ability to preserve families when it is possible, particularly with the county’s Point of Engagement model.
At its first public meeting in May of last year, the coalition protested cuts to family preservation programs. In September, the coalition sent the Board of Supervisors another letter of no confidence in DCFS Director Philip Browning and his executive management team.
“There are alternative ways of handling these cases,” Icenhower said. “We can provide wraparound support and these children don’t have to be removed. We used do to those things years ago, but we’re not looking at those things anymore.”
At the town hall meeting, David Sanders, Cheryl Grills and Michael Nash spoke about the importance of the Blue Ribbon Commission for families, highlighting important recommendations and urging coalition members to demand more immediate action from the Board of Supervisors.
“If you’ve read the Blue Ribbon Commission, it says there’s a shortage of foster care placements out there—we hear that all the time,” Nash said. “The question that I ask, and the question that you ought to be asking, too, is what about families? Shouldn’t there be a preference for placing these children with their families? Who’s asking these questions and who’s demanding the answers? It’s you, the community.”
Vanessa Perez, a 21-year-old mother from South Los Angeles, said she would like DCFS to do more to reunify children with parents. After battling drug abuse and losing custody of her son, Perez has turned a corner with her life, something she hopes will sway the judge in her case.
“I’m doing what I have to do to change my life, following the court orders,” she said. “It’s mostly for my son, but I’m getting myself together and I hope they see that.”
For Matt Harris, executive director of Project Impact and a coalition leader, conversations about reform at the top of Los Angeles County’s child-welfare system should also include more perspectives from the communities most affected by the foster-care system.
“Our voices need to be heard,” Harris said. “You have to have the appropriate leadership in place to have the respect of the community, and community participation is the backbone of reform. What happens to reform when you don’t have that backbone?”
Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter with The Imprint.