The reforms enshrined in a Los Angeles County blue ribbon commission report may be one step closer to reality with the recent appointment of a new child protection leader for the county.
Last month, former Chief Deputy Director of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Fesia Davenport was tapped to serve as interim director of the newly formed Office of Child Protection (OCP).
The creation of an Office of Child Protection was the most prominent recommendation to emerge from the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon on Child Protection’s (BRC) December 2013 interim recommendations and again in its final report in April. The Board of Supervisors approved the BRC’s recommendations in June 2014, but little progress had been made to find a leader of the new agency until Davenport’s appointment.
In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Social Change, Davenport outlined her priorities, shared her perspective on how the OCP can best implement the BRC’s recommendations and explained how she hopes to encourage collaboration throughout the county.
“This job is a marathon, not a sprint,” Davenport said about the new position. “In order to take action, you have to have sustained focus throughout the implementation process.”
Since stepping into the position on February 2, Davenport and a small staff have focused on several issues tied to the BRC recommendations, including the pairing of public-health nurses with social workers, expanding the medical hubs system, examining policies related to the overuse of psychotropic medications with foster youth, expanding the county’s existing database-sharing initiative (the Family and Child Index) and prevention initiatives.
But expectations are high for a new office that many hope will finally lead to the substantive reform promised by the blue ribbon commission. Questions remain about the future of the transition team that has worked to implement those reforms since last summer, and how the OCP director will manage the immense task of reorganizing county bureaucracy and partnerships.
According to Davenport, the key to ensuring that all agencies and departments in Los Angeles County are similarly focused on child safety is the creation of a countywide mission statement, something that was alluded to in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial. The new child-centered statement was not ready in time to meet the initial early February deadline, but having engaged with county departments Davenport hopes to finish the process well in advance of her April report to the Board of Supervisors.
“All the department heads are on board and we’re having discussions about the nuanced distinction between safety and protection,” she said, “and where does prevention come in? What does ‘at risk’ mean [to all county departments]?
“We want to create a networked village and the hub of that village is this mission statement. We’re going to define what child safety means and make sure that everyone is looking in the same direction.”
While she has only been working in the child welfare field since 2013, Davenport brings more than a decade of experience from the county’s Child Support Services Department, where she worked with current DCFS Director Philip Browning. Prior to that, she served in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Bureau of Family Support Operations.
Davenport expects that her varied programmatic and managerial experience in the county will come in handy as she navigates the mandate of the OCP to increase collaboration among departments.
“You need to be able to pull people together and you need to be a good listener,” Davenport said. “People don’t want to come a meeting where they will feel like they’ll be talked at or planned at. They want to know that you’ve actually heard their concerns and the identification of their issues.”
And creating a climate of cooperation will be essential to forging partnerships in a county that does not have a robust track record of collaboration.
“We have to have a certain amount of credibility when we walk in the door because you’re dealing with department heads who are used to reporting directly to the board or to the CEO,” Davenport said. “You have to either have a relationship with them or be able establish a relationship with them.”
The BRC clearly identified the need for a central office, the OCP, to take a leadership role in coordinating services and encouraging child welfare-related collaboration across the county. The director position was dubbed by this publication as a “child safety czar”, a term that was quickly adopted by other media outlets and which does not accurately reflect the responsibilities of the job, according to Davenport.
“I don’t think czar is the right word,” she said. “Operating in an authoritative manner might get you compliance, but it won’t necessarily get you buy-in or ownership.”
“What we’re looking for is ownership—something that’s sustainable. You want people to go back to their departments and push these ideas.”
Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter with The Chronicle of Social Change.