California officials have named a longtime dependency attorney as the state’s next foster care ombudsperson, a watchdog for the nation’s largest child welfare system.
According to a statement released Wednesday by the Department of Social Services, Lawrence Fluharty will begin in his post on Monday.
The appointment ends a nearly six-month vacancy in the office, following the departure in late March of Rochelle Trochtenberg, a former foster youth from Los Angeles who had served since 2016. Trochtenberg left the post to pursue a career as a therapist.
Janay Eustace, executive director of the powerful youth-led advocacy group the California Youth Connection, was part of the panel that selected Fluharty. She said they were looking for somebody who could be “a relentless advocate” for young people in foster care.
“Larry has heard from hundreds of youth directly because he was their attorney,” Eustace said. “He has heard from youth talking about what it feels like to have those rights violated and what their priorities are, what they want and then advocated for that.”
Unlike his predecessor — who spent her teenage years in the Los Angeles County child welfare system — and some of the other candidates for the job, the incoming ombudsperson does not have lived foster care experience. Fluharty has worked as an attorney for more than 25 years, representing youth and parents in dependency court and appellate courts statewide. Fluharty was previously managing attorney for the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents more than 35,000 foster youth and young adults, and helped the firm grow their practice from Los Angeles to Sacramento and Placer counties.
Most recently, Fluharty served as the director of legal services for Children’s Legal Services of San Diego, a nonprofit representing children and young adults in that county’s foster care system.
Fluharty’s former boss Carolyn Griesemer, the executive director of Children’s Legal Services of San Diego, said the ombudsperson’s office will benefit from his deep knowledge of the complex child welfare laws and his dedication to “a better system.”
“Not only is he a walking encyclopedia of all laws in place to protect youth, but his youth-centered approach to every decision that he makes is certain to honor each child’s voice in every complaint his office investigates,” Griesemer told The Imprint in an email.
In his new role as ombudsperson, Fluharty will be responsible for overseeing the care of the roughly 60,000 children, teens and young adults in California’s foster care system. The ombudsperson’s office is tasked with enforcing foster childrens’ rights and providing a pathway for anyone in or involved with the system to lodge complaints about their care.
“In his career, he has been a champion for children’s rights, working to ensure they are placed in the least restrictive setting, maintaining contact with their family and community,” Department of Social Services spokesperson Scott Murray wrote in a statement to The Imprint. “He is excited to take on the new challenges the position of California’s Foster Care Ombudsperson offers.”
The office has grown in recent years under the leadership of Trochtenberg, who was the first former foster youth to hold the role. During her tenure, the number of staff available to field calls doubled.
In 2016, Trochtenberg coordinated an assessment of foster children’s legal rights in the state — a project that led to passage of California’s most recent foster youth bill of rights. During her tenure, the ombudsperson’s website received a long overdue makeover, providing information in a more youth-friendly and accessible format.
Pending legislation on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would strengthen and expand the influence of the office.
Currently, the ombudsperson and staffers work within the Department of Social Services, creating potential conflicts given the watchdog role the office plays. But Assembly Bill 317 authored by Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R), would create greater independence from social services leadership, and “prohibit removal of the ombudsperson from their office for exercising their independence and discretion.” AB 317 would also task the head of a separate department to appoint future ombudspersons and grant the office additional investigative powers.
If signed into law by the Democratic governor, the bill would also expand the purview of the office to include children living away from their parents under certain involuntary arrangements — arrangements described as hidden foster care — as well as migrant youth living in California foster homes and facilities under the care of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Those familiar with the state’s selection process said he was selected over a number of job candidates with lived experience in the foster care system, which concerned some advocates.
Eustace said she hopes Fluharty will hire at least one former foster youth to a leadership position in his office.
“We understand how powerful and empowering it is to have a former foster youth in that role,” Eustace said. But, she added that it was just as important “that we had a person in the role who would be able to create recommendations that needed to happen to transform the system.”