Long before she launched a bid to succeed her boss on Los Angeles County’s powerful Board of Supervisors, Kathryn Barger cut her teeth working on children’s issues in the county.
After a stint interning in current Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s Pasadena field office more than 25 years ago, Barger spent 13 years as his health and welfare deputy, where she learned the ropes of county politics by working on children’s services, mental health, health services and welfare.
“My 13 years handling these policy issues really did give me an understanding in terms of what the most vulnerable population we deal with needs and what we need to do to address those concerns,” Barger said. “That’s the seed that was planted when I first started with Mike.”
Though she moved up to become Antonovich’s chief deputy 13 years ago, her experience as children’s deputy has shaped her approach and awareness of the issues facing the county’s most vulnerable children and families.
Antonovich, her longtime boss, is stepping down after 36 years in office. As she hopes to fill his shoes, Barger is banking on her experience to carry her to victory in the Nov. 8 election.
Facing political newcomer Darrell Park, Barger is vying to represent a gigantic swath of Los Angeles County in the fifth district — about 2,800 miles — that includes Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale and most of the San Gabriel, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys.
With an annual budget of $28 billion, the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors governs a population of 10 million with two million people living in the fifth district. The county’s total population is larger than all but seven states.
More than a quarter of the board’s budget is dedicated to supporting children and families, and the county is home to the nation’s largest foster-care and juvenile-justice systems, along with a huge public-health department and a growing issue with homelessness.
Barger’s immersion in children’s issues in L.A. County has given her insight into the challenges facing the county, especially when it comes to foster-parent recruitment. Over the past decade, the county has experienced a 50 percent drop in the number of foster parents, which has strained DCFS to find homes for children in the foster-care system placed in out-of-home care.
At a candidates forum held in May by Fostering Media Connections, Barger suggested that the county needed to lean more on its faith-based communities and the private providers to alleviate the shortage.
Barger believes the county can rely more on private foster family agencies (FFAs) to boost the declining number of foster parents in the county. In Los Angeles County, foster youth in out-of-home care can be placed either in the county’s own system of foster parents that is administered by DCFS or with parents who are recruited and overseen by FFAs. The county currently places 22.5 percent of youth in out-of-home care with foster parents in FFAs; 6.4 percent are placed with foster parents through the county’s system.
“Government serves a purpose, but I don’t think it’s the end-all,” Barger said. “Given the challenges on recruitment alone, I think we need to capitalize on the FFAs. But I just don’t see FFAs replacing DCFS. We also need to do a better job, internally, of doing recruitment.”
A greater investment in early intervention could also relieve the pressure on the county to find enough foster families, according to Barger.
“We need to do more early intervention in child welfare cases,” Barger said. “The first goal should be to keep the family together when at all possible. Early intervention will allow us to at least — I would hope — bring down the number of kids that are being taken out of the home.”
Another way Barger hopes to improve the county’s child-welfare system is by addressing two issues that she says inhibit the ability of social workers: a growing mountain of paperwork and high caseloads caused by attrition.
After four Los Angeles County social workers were indicted on charges related to felony child abuse and falsifying records in the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, many county social workers are now taking a more cautious approach, Barger said.
As a result, paperwork and caseloads have spiked.
“When you look at the caseloads, my goal is to let these social workers get back to visiting the kids,” Barger said. “We need to look at the amount of paperwork that we require for social workers. I think that we need to hit a happy medium in terms of what paperwork is needed, and what paperwork is required.”
The county made plans to hire up to 570 social workers during the last financial year and has 528 more coming aboard this year, according to Barger. This could help stem the retention and burnout issues that have made retaining social workers a difficult proposition.
But Barger is hoping that a proposed mentorship program with the Service Employees International Union that would pair seasoned social workers with rookies could also stem the loss of social workers from the county.
“We can’t just focus on hiring, we need to focus on what is it that’s moving these people out of our system, and talk to the social workers that are leaving,” Barger said. “We’ve got to address that.”
Along with social workers, juvenile justice will occupy a prominent place on the agenda of the next iteration of the Board of Supervisors. The board has mulled creating a blue ribbon commission for the county’s Probation Department as it considers implementing a more therapeutic model of care at its 13 juvenile camps and three juvenile halls.
Overall, the numbers of youth detained in the halls and camps have declined substantially, leading Barger to support the idea of closing some detention facilities for youth.
“Closures would be based on the need,” she said. “And if we’re not housing as many youth at our camps, then I think that answers the question.”
Camp Scott, where the county has recently decided to implement a therapeutic model of rehabilitation for girls using a small-group approach, represents the future according to Barger.
“We’re looking at a small group therapeutic model for the youths that need to have focused services and moving out those youths out that don’t belong there — the ones that are not high risk, high crime — back into the community,” Barger said. “We need to focus on the ones that are more likely to recidivate in the camps so we can get them the oversight, and also the treatment that they need.”
In the lead-up to next week’s election, Barger is counting on the strong support she’s garnered from nearly all the current supervisors, including liberal Sheila Kuehl and conservative stalwarts Don Knabe and Antonovich.
Barger, a registered Republican, has received flak from her Democratic opponent Park because of her political affiliation, despite the nonpartisan nature of the office.
But she insists that her approach to the office is not mediated by political affiliation.
“I’m not someone who is going to play party politics, especially when two-thirds of our budget is for health and welfare,” Barger said. “To play party politics with people that depend on us for their needs, I don’t do that.”
Barger says her experience and understanding of the county are more important than the new ideas of her opponent, who has suggested empowering Sheriff’s Department officers to ferry social workers “to their meetings as fast as lights and sirens can allow.”
“It’s not about riding fast and getting more business, it’s about quality time and the tools needed for that social workers to get in there and be a good case worker to that family and that child,” Barger said. “That’s experience and not just a pie-in-the-sky idea.”
For more coverage of the race for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, click here.