When Charity Chandler-Cole was 16, she was caught stealing underwear in a South Los Angeles store. Not long after her arrest, she was sent to juvenile hall and then wound up in foster care.
Over the course of the two years she spent in a nightmarish group home, she faced shockingly brutal treatment at the hands of group home staff.
“They would sneak us out to be sexually exploited between shift changes,” Chandler said about her time in a South Los Angeles group home. “You just felt like an animal in a zoo. There wasn’t a sense of a family, just a bunch of broken girls trying to figure out life, knowing that the system didn’t care about them.”
Later, she was homeless and spent time in a Los Angeles County jail after running away from the group home. At 18, she became a mother for the first time.
Those aren’t experiences common to many leaders of child welfare agencies.
But Chandler-Cole, now 30, wants to lead the largest local child welfare system in world: the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
“Can you imagine if all these foster youth saw one of them running DCFS? That would give them hope,”Chandler-Cole said. “The thought just gave me goose bumps.”
In the years since her horrific experiences as a ward of L.A.’s child welfare system, Chandler-Cole has pulled herself up to a place nearly unimaginable to the frightened girl she once was.
Chandler-Cole would like to see DCFS torn down and rebuilt again, with a bigger focus on hiring better social workers and finding ways to meet the needs of often-disconnected youth.
“There needs to be a real evaluation of what [DCFS] actually does well,” she said. “They don’t have enough resources to properly serve the foster youth. It starts with the quality of people hired and trained and the quality of the resources available.”
Despite her age and Chandler-Cole is part of a wave of alumni of the foster care and juvenile justice systems who are no longer content to just survive but who harbor aspirations to take leadership roles in the systems that once governed their lives.
In California and across the country, alumni of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are now emerging as important leaders in reform efforts. Former foster youth Jennifer Rodriguez heads the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and is a leading force in the effort to shift California away from a reliance on group homes. Youth-led foster youth advocacy groups from Oregon to Florida have racked up an increasing number of legislative wins at the state level over the past few years.
But having a former foster youth take charge in Los Angeles would be a game-changer.
In terms of size and scope, no county system in America compares to DCFS, which provides services to more than 34,000 children across L.A. County. It oversees nearly 18,000 of those kids in out-of-home care, situations where DCFS determines that children should be separated from their families, and sifts through more than 200,000 allegations of child abuse and neglect every year.
At the end of January, DCFS Director Philip Browning retired after five years of stability for a department used to the cycling through of executives. Browning’s time was also marked by several high-profile child deaths that led to a renewed focus on child safety through the creation of the Office of Child Protection, an added layer of oversight for the department.
The new DCFS director will oversee an organization with a $2.2 billion budget and nearly 9,000 employees.
“This is a seven-day-a-week job, not only for staff, but for the director,” Browning said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “Here you’ve got children whose lives are at risk, and there’s virtually zero tolerance for mistakes.”
The county is closing in on naming Browning’s replacement at DCFS, which a county job description calls “perhaps the most critical department in Los Angeles County.”
Chandler-Cole thinks she is up for the task. She now manages federal awards and contracts for the $1.4 billion Hollywood-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Last year, she mounted an unsuccessful bid to join the Gardena City Council, her first foray into politics.
She currently serves on the Juvenile Justice Standing Committee for the state’s Board of State and Community Corrections. She was also a member of the executive steering committee that earlier this year awarded $103 million to California communities from the state’s Proposition 47 fund, a high-profile effort to redirect some money away from prisons and into substance abuse and mental health treatment services at the community level.
“I’ve fought very hard to prove statistics wrong and prove naysayers wrong and become somebody,” she said. “My life story has been a journey of giving hope to kids that are in the system and kids who feel like they can’t do or become anything. Having someone who has been system-involved will give so many kids in the system hope. They’ll have someone to look up to, someone to aspire to be, someone that they know has their back, no matter what.”
Chandler-Cole is also a founding board director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, the organization founded by Hollywood producer Scott Budnick that’s become a powerful player in statewide juvenile justice advocacy efforts.
Franky Carrillo, a fellow board director with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said that Chandler-Cole is a powerful inspiration to young people who have spent time in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems.
“You wouldn’t believe that a person like her has been impacted by the system like she has,” Carrillo said. “It breaks stereotypes that people have to look a certain way, behave a certain way or think a certain way. It’s a big paradigm shift.”
Over the past few weeks, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has begun interviewing candidates for the DCFS director position. Some sources suggest that word may come down soon about Browning’s successor.
Chandler-Cole knows the odds may be against her.
“I know I’m not a likely candidate,” she said. “I know my age is going to be an issue and being an African-American female and a former foster youth. But I have to be successful.
“I have something to prove.”