Judge Wrestles with Challenges of Keeping L.A. Children Safe

On November 3, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to hire Judge Michael Nash as the director of the Office of Child Protection.

The office was one of the top recommendations to come out of the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which was sunsetted last year. The charge given to that office was to orient public agencies throughout the county to do a better job at keeping children safe from abuse, neglect and death at the hands of their caregivers.

In an interview conducted shortly before the news of Nash’s impending appointment, the former presiding judge of the county’s juvenile court said that child safety would be his top concern.

Judge Michael Nash addresses graduate students during a Media for Policy Change class at USC on March 12, 2015.
Judge Michael Nash addresses graduate students during a Media for Policy Change class at USC on March 12, 2015.

“No problem can sustain the assault of sustained thinking,” Nash said. “That’s Voltaire, okay. That is the philosophy that has governed how I have worked with others.” He added that his role would primarily be one of a convener, “working with and for a board of supervisors that really cares for children.”

Under the umbrella of child safety, Nash answered deeper questions on the role of predictive analytics in assessing risk, the county’s responsibility in efforts to keep families together and how he would overcome perceived bad blood between himself and the sitting director of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

In 2014, this publication started focusing attention on the possibility of using predictive analytics to help assess the probability that a child is at risk of abuse. In jurisdictions including New Zealand, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles, mathematical algorithms that crunch big data to spit out scores on the likelihood of child maltreatment are being developed and met with both excitement and resistance.

“We need to look closely at predictive analytics and see how it can be adapted,” Nash said. “If that is an appropriate issue that the board feels we need to hit head on, we’ll do it.”

But Nash cautioned that he is a year out since leaving his post at the head of the juvenile court, and that he would have to do his “due diligence,” meeting with supervisors, their deputies, department heads and experts from around the county and country.

A driving force behind the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission in 2013 was a report issued by a county legal unit, which zeroed in on a family preservation program called Point of Engagement.

The “Report Regarding DCFS Recurring Systemic Issues,” was a blunt indictment of inadequate investigations of abuse and DCFS’ overriding philosophy to keep the numbers of children entering foster care down.

The report, which was written by Amy Shek Naamani, then lead investigator of the so-called Children’s Special Investigative Unit, states:

“In recent years, the focus on utilizing voluntary services and safety plans as a means of keeping children at home has clearly conveyed the message that DCFS wants to reduce reliance on out-of-home care. Like the classic ‘game of telephone’, over time, the message ‘morphed’ and was understood by the workers and managers as simply ‘do not remove/keep the numbers down’ and other equally important goals – decreased timelines to permanence and improved child safety in particular – were lost in the message.

“Individual offices and leadership celebrated as their number of detentions decreased and individual social workers were praised for low detention numbers; all while more children were dying while left in their parent(s) care.”

The report detailed the systemic failings that contributed to 13 deaths and one “critical incident” where an eight-week-old boy was thrown against a wall and sustained near-fatal injuries. “Front-end” services, including under-informed investigations and an over-reliance on L.A.’s unproven but widely lauded differential response experiment, Point of Engagement (POE), contributed to the majority of the deaths, according to the report.

The CSIU report was shared with L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors in April of 2012, and leaked to The Los Angeles Times in February of 2013. But it would take the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in May of the same year — and The Times’ reporting of that tragedy — to force the board to act.

“The recurring problems identified by CSIU appear to have been factors in the alleged mishandling of Gabriel F.’s case,” wrote Supervisors Mark Ridley Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich in the motion that would establish the Blue Ribbon Commission.

In the years since that report was issued and under the watch of DCFS Director Philip Browning, the Point of Engagement Program has been largely dismantled, much to the chagrin of private child welfare agencies that used to get POE contracts from DCFS throughout South L.A.

For his part, Nash thinks it is time to revisit the program.

“If I have my way, we will go back and take another look at that,” Nash said. “When that was created under the administration of David Sanders, I really thought it had a lot of promise, and I am not convinced today that it doesn’t. I want to know how far we got away from it, and why, and what parts can be resurrected so we can do a better job of serving families in the community.”

Nash said the county dependency court has been “drowning in petitions” to remove children for the past two years.

“What I want to know is how the department is maximizing its efforts to safely divert families from the court system, so that we can keep families together when appropriate,” he said.

The question of increasing numbers of children entering foster care is one that Nash has been outspoken about. While he did concede that media coverage like that surrounding the death of Gabriel Fernandez could create a situation where DCFS brass grew fearful of keeping kids in their homes, he said that wasn’t a good enough reason.

“The question is, are kids being removed out of fear of political repercussions or are kids being removed because of good social work?” Nash said. “At the end of the day, it has to be the latter. Simple as that.”

Despite his criticisms of the rising number of children entering foster care under Browning’s watch, Nash said that there was no friction between the two of them.

“I don’t have any personal issues with the director of DCFS or anyone else at this point,” Nash said. “Quite frankly, we work together. Have I at times been critical? Yes. But people have misinterpreted that we don’t get along, and that has not been the case.”

If the board votes to approve Nash next week, he will be taking on a task never before attempted, let alone accomplished. He will be charged with uniting sparring factions and varied political ambitions to orient all of L.A.’s public systems towards keeping children safe.

“I am really humbled that the board came to me, and had the confidence that they thought I should be the person to do this.”

As he said, “Failure is not an option.”

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Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change 182 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at dheimpel@fosteringmediaconnections.org.