In Los Angeles, Leaders Divided on How to Proceed with Child Welfare Reform

Amid continuing questions about its role and responsibilities, the transition team charged with guiding the implementation of reform in Los Angeles County’s vast child-welfare system issued its first report to the county Board of Supervisors on August 19.

The nine-member transition team was formed in June to implement the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors initiated the Blue Ribbon Commission nearly a year ago in response to a leaked report citing systemic failures at the Department of Children and Family Services and a high-profile child death.

In its final report released on April 18, the commission offered more than 40 recommendations, including the creation of a new office that would coordinate responsibilities for child safety that are currently spread across several different departments in the county.

In its first report to the Board of Supervisors, transition team co-chairs Leslie Gilbert-Lurie and Mitchell Katz and team member Janet Teague presented the group’s work over the course of the past month. Those efforts have largely centered on clarifying the role and desired qualifications of the incoming director of the Office of Child Protection.

“The founding director of the Office of Child Protection will have the opportunity to forge a transformational process for the children of Los Angeles County and we hope you see it the same way,” Gilbert-Lurie said while addressing the Board of Supervisors at the August 19 meeting.

But the transition team remains hindered by confusion about its responsibilities beyond assisting in the search for a leader of the new office and questions about staffing support that team members say would help speed up the implementation of reforms suggested by the Blue Ribbon Commission.

“What bothers me is that we’re not seeing eye to eye on what’s the most important thing for us,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “The most important thing is getting the Office of Child Protection person hired. The search firm in my opinion is moving very slowly, too slowly, and is responding to too many people. It’s August 19 and we’re no closer to hiring, or even searching for the office of child protection than we were a month ago.”

Transition team member Gilbert-Lurie argued that the team needs additional resources and support in the form of an executive director to accelerate efforts at implementing further recommendations.

“You have herded a group with a wide range of talents—we have doctors, Ph.D.s, judges, lawyers,” Gilbert-Lurie said. “But we need someone whose eye is on the ball of moving this forward. We believe there’s a lot of information that could be helpful in working with department heads. [We could] leverage the best of what you have in the county if there is someone available to take our ideas and help implement them when we’re working in our day jobs. We don’t believe we have access to that sort of person with that executive experience right now on a full enough time basis.”

But some supervisors offered divergent views of what the role of the transition team should be moving forward.

“It’s more important to get the office of child protection person hired than to get your executive director hired,” Zaroslavsky said. “We never approved a staff for the transition team. We’re kind of arguing about the shape of a table in Paris while the war is going on.”

Supervisor Don Knabe, who voted against the creation of the transition team, was more blunt in his assessment.

“There’s a lot of ‘we want this,’ ‘we want that,’ and I am just concerned that we maintain the [transition team’s] advisory relationship to the board,” Knabe said.

According to co-chair Katz, the transition team hopes to focus on finding ways to help county departments work together to make children safer until the Office of Child Protection is in place.

“We recognize it might be many months before there is someone in the Office of Child Protection, and we want to make sure our children do not have to wait for that position to be filled in order for the recommendations to be implemented,” said Katz, who serves as director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county must remain “laser-like focused” on child protection, and alluded to the 2013 death of 6 year-old Gabriel Fernandez that prompted the Blue Ribbon Commission in the first place.

“It only takes a look at the newspaper today and the recounting of the grand jury investigation regarding Gabriel Fernandez to remind us in searing terms why we must do what we are doing and why in fact protection of the vulnerable, at-risk youngsters in our county requires all that we can give it, structurally, systemically, morally and legally,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We need to keep moving forward—an agenda that gets us where we need to be. It is not reducible to the selection of the person who lead the office; there are many other things I would hope that would come back to the board pursuant to their deliberation to suggest what progress looks like.”

The transition team is slated to meet again on Friday, August 22. No date has yet been scheduled for the transition team to make its next report to the Board of Supervisors.

Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter for The Imprint.

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