It is going to take more than a Blue Ribbon Commission or a czar to significantly change the trajectory of Los Angeles County’s child welfare system: it will require a re-ordering of political priorities and the will of the entire community.
It was not until late January that Los Angeles County’s press corps and Board of Supervisors started a serious debate over the future of foster care in the county. The attention was spurred by a slate of recommendations proffered at the end of December by the latest Blue Ribbon Commission established to fix the child welfare system.
The focus is now zeroing in on the commission’s recommendation that the Board of Supervisors name a lead agency to serve as a child welfare czar. In the commission’s reckoning, this lead agency would “have the ability to transcend structure and propose the movement of financial and staff resources without regard to department lines.”
With such sweeping powers in hand this new czar would be charged with carrying out the commission’s final recommendations, due in April.
While supervisors have neither named any such agency nor promised to allocate any money towards an eventual child welfare czar, press queries have started them talking.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was instrumental in the establishment of the commission last year, seems to be most enthusiastic, according to reports out of the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times. But Supervisors Zev Yarasolvsky and Gloria Molina have noted that the changes being called for – merging agencies, improving medical centers to assess potential victims of maltreatment and sending public health nurses out on child maltreatment investigations – cannot be done without new money, according to a recent story in the Times.
As the Board of Supervisors and the commission moves forward, they should consider four key elements to success. These are:
- Lessons from child welfare reform initiatives that hinge on cross-agency collaboration.
- The value of putting front-line workers from various child-serving departments in the same building.
- The power and necessity of incorporating youth in the process.
- The role of the news media in ensuring that all the players involved are getting the job done.
Lessons from Around the State
In 2006, then-assemblymember and current U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), worked with the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) to pass the Child Welfare Leadership and Accountability Act.
The idea was to create something akin to a child welfare czar at the state level, according to Young Minds Advocacy President Patrick Gardner, who was then NCYL’s Deputy Director.
“Our goal was not to make the person responsible for child welfare specifically, but for children who touched the child welfare system, more politically and budgetarily visible and responsible,” Gardner said in an interview. “And in the end, we settled for the Child Welfare Council, which was intended to bring a lot of the players together under one roof… and thereby, make it more politically visible, and ultimately also bring some resources to the table.”
While the council has been successful in fomenting important dialogue and conversation between agencies, it’s role is limited. According to the council webpage on the California Health and Human Services site, it “is charged with monitoring and reporting on the extent to which the agencies and courts are responsive to the needs of children in their joint care.” It is not empowered to do anything more than create consensus.
Another place to look for direction on how Los Angeles under a child welfare czar would function are other counties that have integrated their child welfare related services, like Humboldt.
“The question is, have they [Humboldt] as a result of that structural change done a better job of coordinating services for kids in foster care, in the juvenile justice system?” Gardner asked. “I don’t know that there’s a knock-down obvious answer to that. So the idea I think is a good one; how it plays out in reality is a little bit more difficult to envision.”
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning echoed this sentiment when he told Christina Villacorte of the Los Angeles Daily News: “Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel. Let’s first see what someone else has done, and if there’s a model, let’s look at it.”
It is now incumbent on the Board of Supervisors, the Blue Ribbon Commission, and the Los Angeles press corps to investigate jurisdictions where there have been successful mergers of child-serving agencies. If those examples are hard to come by, this broader community needs to paint the contours of a system that could work better than the existing one.
The best day in Dennis McFall’s professional life came back in 1999. He was the director of Shasta County’s Department of Social Services and had spent years convincing the county’s other human services department heads to pitch the Shasta Board of Supervisors on a hitherto unachievable idea: create a one-stop shop where all the professionals that will touch a child’s life are in one place.
That day in 1999, McFall asked the Board of Supervisors for $800,000 to pay for a staff increase and a the lease on a new building to house front-line workers from child welfare, mental health, drug and alcohol, county schools and public health.
“Change from the top doesn’t work too well,” McFall, now retired, said in an interview. “Put them in a building and have them work it out.”
When McFall made his pitch, he brought a youth who had experienced the county’s child welfare system and was also a member of the California Youth Connection, a foster-youth led advocacy group. After McFall and the youth finished, the Board approved the $800,000 expenditure and even gave them a standing ovation.
“Having a foster youth start the [board] meeting was the smartest action I took in 27 years in child welfare,” McFall wrote in an e-mail. “It was the difference between failure and success.”
Fifteen years later and the building is still there, adjacent to a downtown mall in Mt. Shasta City under the burnished red flanks of the volcano bearing the same name.
Youth as Part of the Solution
This is not the first time Los Angeles has seen a Blue Ribbon Commission and unless we finally get it right, it won’t be the last. As far as I see it, there has to be a fundamental change in the strategy for protecting children.
Firstly, we have to ask ourselves: what is the point of doing any of this if it is not guided by the young people who experience the system? The commission should recommend that the Board of Supervisors pay for youth to be a part of the decision-making process under any eventual czar. It can’t only be a bunch of grayhairs calling the shots.
The very existence of the Blue Ribbon Commission is attributable to the press’ role in compelling the Board of Supervisors to act. And it wasn’t until the press took notice of the commission’s preliminary recommendations that the debate about spending money or designating a czar became real. The commissioners shouldn’t forget this when laying out their final recommendations.
They should recommend that press coverage of child welfare is expanded. The commission should advocate for the easing of confidentiality laws on the state level, the continuance of Judge Michael Nash’s blanket order giving greater access to the media in juvenile dependency courts after he steps down next year, and the creation of a fund to support journalism projects that cover the system and the Board of Supervisors independently.
Reporting grants from this new fund would be made to both non-profit and traditional media outlets to engage in investigative reporting of the child welfare system. That will provide the heat to keep reforms alive and the broader community engaged.
In the interim, it is up to the czarlings of Los Angeles County Child Welfare Reform – the foster youth, the community providers, the social workers, the media, you and me – to guide the commission and compel the Board of Supervisors to take this opportunity to something different and real.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.