The transition team appointed to initiate sweeping child protection reform in Los Angeles met for the first time in 2015 this week, and seemed to embrace an optimistic attitude.
“A lot of times you wonder if this is going to be shelved, these recommendations, and what I’m seeing is that it’s alive and well, and we’re moving forward,” said Richard Martinez during the January 12 meeting. Martinez, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, is a member of the transition team and Superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District.
“It’s so exciting that we’re moving forward with this,” said transition team member Janet Teague at the January meeting.
The positive tone belies the team’s frustration over spending the past six months grinding out small wins while being sidelined from the highest priority of the reform process: hiring the person who will oversee it.
The transition team’s meetings – held in the cavernous and almost entirely empty Board of Supervisors’ meeting room in downtown L.A. – have produced some results, such as the expansion of the medical hubs where children and youth receive health screenings.
But fitful relations between the team and some of the county’s five supervisors have left team members and outside observers wondering what could have been if the board had given the deliberative body a stronger mandate.
“We have not yet had an easy communication with respect to the people we’re serving, the Board of Supervisors,” said transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie during a December meeting. “A transition team really is only useful if there is a desire to use us in terms of our expertise and our opinions.”
Hope for better relations comes in the form of two new board members, both of whom have voiced support for the reform process.
“We need reports back [from the transition team] more often,” said newly sworn in Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, during a recent Board of Supervisors’ meeting. “I think the public’s confidence in what we’re doing is very low. They haven’t seen us doing much and they don’t know that we will do much.”
How L.A. Got Here
In the spring of 2013, eight year-old Gabriel Fernandez died at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. This came on the heels of an earlier Los Angeles Times story about a leaked report, which outlined the “systemic issues” that had contributed to 14 serious incidents including 13 child deaths. The media heat compelled the county’s Board of Supervisors to act. On June 25, 2013 they passed a motion creating the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection (BRC).
The BRC spent the next nine months investigating child welfare and child protection practices throughout the county and released its final report in April 2014, which included the recommendation to create a new Office of Child Protection. The office was envisioned to have sweeping powers over all child-serving departments.
Transition Team Created
On June 10, 2014, the Board of Supervisors voted to adopt all of the BRC’s recommendations, and to create a transition team to oversee the reform process.
The team began its twice-monthly meetings in July 2014. Its nine members represented health services, the juvenile court, the county CEO’s Office, the Commission for Children and Families and other agencies, with some holdovers from the sunsetted BRC.
The June 10, 2014 board motion that instituted the transition team said it would:
- Provide input related to the creation of the Office of Child Protection (OCP), and advise on child protection until the Office of Child Protection is established.
- Prioritize and monitor the implementation of the recommendations outlined in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s final report.
- Assess the county’s Medical Hubs, a central health component of the reform package.
- Present its progress to the Board of Supervisors every month.
The team has since made progress on several aspects of the broad reform package accepted by the board, despite infrequent communication with the supervisors and its unrealized mandate.
“I think we’ve all struggled with the role of the transition team. It is not a typical government structure,” said co-chair Mitchell Katz, Director of the Department of Health Services for Los Angeles County, during the December 8 meeting. “Typical government structures are blue ribbon committees and then bureaucracies to implement recommendations of blue ribbon committees, and we are something in between.”
Progress on Several Fronts
The directives to assess and expand the county’s medical hubs and to pair public health nurses with social workers is well under way. The funds needed to improve the medical hubs have already been accounted for in the health services budget, and the Board of Supervisors authorized the $1.9 million allocation on January 13. The board also voted to begin taking steps to roll out the public health nurse program.
“I think this is going to be moving the county forward in a way that hadn’t occurred in the past,” said Philip Browning, Director of the Department of Children and Family Services, during the January 12 transition team meeting.
In addition to creating a “matrix” to track progress on all the BRC recommendations, the county CEO’s Office provided a report to the transition team that identified all county expenditures related to children and families; a total of $7.7 billion. The next step is to determine how much would potentially be saved by implementing the BRC recommendations, but the office is not yet able to provide that information.
“Until we determine how we’re going to implement some of these recommendations, it’s hard to be able to tell what the cost is and even harder to tell what we no longer have to do or what things are going to change as a result,” said Antonia Jimenez, the transition team’s representative from the CEO’s Office and a former interim director of the Department of Children and Family Services.
One early recommendation that succeeded in garnering interest and actual money was improving law enforcement’s response to suspected child abuse.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey requested funds to increase her office’s capacity to audit the use of the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System (E-SCARS) in April of 2014. E-SCARS is a $2 million system developed to allow law enforcement and the county’s Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) to cross-report allegations of abuse and neglect, but the system has been poorly utilized and maintained over the years.
Another $764,000 was requested for ongoing maintenance and upgrades to the system. These funds were finally released in October, after the transition team submitted a letter to the board recommending the action.
Stymied on Top Priority
Despite these notable strides, much of the transition team’s work has been stymied by the fact that the huge reforms sought by the BRC are not to take place until someone is hired to lead the Office of Child Protection. The hiring process has been slowed by the inauguration of two new supervisors, and debates amongst the supervisors and with the transition team about who should be involved in selecting the new leader and what role the office will have when it is created.
“If I had to quantify it, I would say 25 percent of the reason a transition team was set up to exist was to facilitate the search and the structuring of the office [of child protection],” said Gilbert-Lurie during the team’s December 14 meeting.
And it is on this early point that transition team members say they have been sidelined.
The motion that created the transition team stated, “The Transition Team should work with the Board to provide input as to job description, desired qualities and experience for the Director of OCP. The Board will interview candidates and select the Director of OCP.”
As the co-chairs of the transition team have mentioned in a number of meetings, the team drafted a job description for the Director of the Office of Child Protection and provided it to the Board of Supervisors.
The final job description released last September included the same tasks and deliverables provided by the transition team; however very little of the language related to the general overview of the position was retained.
Former supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky suggested, during the transition team’s first report to the board back in August, that there was perhaps “intentionality” to slow down the process of hiring the new director until he and Gloria Molina had left office.
On October 7, at Yaroslavsky’s request, the board voted 3-2 to allow the team co-chairs to participate in the hiring of the OCP director. But later that month, Gilbert-Lurie stated during a transition team meeting that the team would not be permitted to participate in the process.
As the LA Times recently reported, and Gilbert-Lurie confirmed, this reversal came from former Board Chair Don Knabe’s office.
“There is talent here that is not being fully utilized in a pure spirit of collaboration,” Gilbert-Lurie said at the final meeting of 2014. “I believe there’s a wasted opportunity to not be collaborating with this team in the search.”
As of December, the search firm originally hired to solicit potential applicants for the OCP position had been released from its contract with the county. The county then announced on January 8 that an interim Office of Child Protection would be housed within the CEO’s Office, suggesting that the CEO will devote staff and resources toward the implementation of the BRC recommendations until a permanent director is hired.
The Point of Resistance
So why has a team tasked with leading child protection reform been estranged from the very board that adopted these reforms and then voted it into existence?
Part of the answer, according to transition team members and others within Los Angeles’ child welfare community, lies in the fact that Knabe did not support either, and, as stated in an email to The Chronicle, views the entire process as “fundamentally flawed.”
“The transition team – like the Blue Ribbon Commission before them – have not been effective at all,” said Knabe in an email to The Chronicle.
When it came to the notion of creating a new child protection office, the centerpiece of the BRC reforms, Knabe was even more forthright.
“It is simply a terrible idea,” Knabe said. “I would prefer that resources be focused on the point-of-contact, rather than another high level of bureaucracy.”
Exchanges between Knabe and the transition team have been less than amicable. Knabe has publicly denounced both the Blue Ribbon Commission and the transition team numerous times, and the team’s presentations to the Board of Supervisors have been delayed nearly every month. Supervisor Mike Antonovich has often echoed Knabe’s nay votes on actions related to both committees. Antonovich recently rotated into Knabe’s role as Board Chair, under the title of Mayor of Los Angeles County.
“I’m beginning to feel and fear that this entire effort is getting reduced to paralysis of analysis,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas during the transition team’s third presentation to the Board on January 6, 2015.
Stilted communication has also hindered the transition team’s ability to carry out its mandate. The CEO’s Office has been part of a number of committees working on reform efforts that began prior to or during the investigations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, and a reporter for The Chronicle has witnessed the late delivery of relevant information from the CEO’s Office to the transition team numerous times.
Minimal communication between the Board of Supervisors and the transition team might have sped up the implementation process for some recommendations. When members of the transition team asked for an update on E-SCARS in August and September, they were told by Jimenez that the board was waiting for the team to prioritize all recommendations before it would release funding for specific items.
Though the transition team did not believe prioritization of the recommendations was within its purview, the repeated delay of the team’s monthly reports to the board, by the board, ensured little opportunity for dialogue.
With the inauguration of two new supervisors – Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, the transition team still has potential to be effective. According to her website, Solis “is committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.” Solis and Keuhl both confirmed their commitment to joining Ridley-Thomas in reviewing the BRC’s recommendations and to hiring additional social workers in a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times.
Kuehl, who said she would make children in foster care a priority in a July interview with The Chronicle of Social Change, recently joined forces with Supervisor Mike Antonovich to push for the expansion of a county internship program for foster youth.
Kuehl may lead the supervisors toward swift action in the realm of child protection reform. After the transition team’s most recent presentation to the board, Kuehl volunteered to take on the task of creating a countywide mission statement that prioritizes child protection.
The transition team, seemingly motivated by the two new supervisors’ show of support, concluded its first meeting of 2015 by addressing the question of where it will focus its attention in the months ahead.
Topics discussed include child placement issues, the countywide prevention plan that First 5 LA and the Department of Public Health have been asked to design, and the BRC’s education- and mental health-related recommendations, which have yet to be implemented.
“I also am encouraged by the progress we’ve made in terms of these recommendations and also by the enthusiasm we were met with last week overall by the Board of Supervisors, and by their desire to move more quickly,” Gilbert-Lurie said during the transition team meeting.