This week, the head of the nation’s largest child protection agency surprised his staff and the broader child welfare community by announcing his retirement.
Philip Browning has served as director of the Los Angeles County’s sprawling Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for five years, the second-longest stint in the agency’s 32-year history.
Since Browning started as interim director in late 2011, the department has grown to 8,800 employees, while the annual budget increased to $2.2 billion. It was a time marked by Browning’s emphasis on child safety, which coincided with a reduction in child deaths, but also a significant increase in the number of children removed from their homes and placed into foster care.
When Browning started, there were just over 15,000 children living in out-of-home foster care. As of October of this year, nearly 18,000 children were living in foster homes or with relatives, all under the department’s watchful eye. This represents an increase of almost 18 percent.
In an interview the day after his announcement, Browning dispelled conjecture that a job in President-Elect Donald Trump’s Department of Health Human Services had lured him away, and described his experiences at the helm of the most closely scrutinized child welfare agency in the country.
The Chronicle of Social Change: I read the reason you’re stepping down, according to The Los Angeles Times, but why are you really leaving?
Philip Browning: I just think that we’ve done a lot. It would be helpful to have someone who could take this job to a new level. But really, I’d gone to Cuba with my wife, and we were there with a whole bunch of other folks all about my age, and I’m the only sucker that’s working.
CSC: So, I have to ask: Have you been contacted by the Trump transition team about working for the administration?
PB: I have not, but I’m looking forward to that call.
CSC: Would you consider the opportunity, if you got the call to head the Administration for Children Youth and Families (ACYF)?
PB: I don’t think that there’s any way that I’ll be asked to be a candidate for the ACYF job. But I would never say never to anything. I didn’t say never to this job when I got called by two supervisors while I was eating my lunch five years ago.
You know, I’m just a good old country boy, and I’m going to take a little time off, and do a little traveling.
CSC: L.A. County is home to biggest child welfare administration out there. How is it different than anywhere else from your perspective?
PB: I think size. It’s so difficult to have an impact when you have as many staff as we do. Although, DPSS [the Department of Social Services] has more staff, a bigger budget, but frankly, that was an easier place for me to navigate and manage.
CSC: Why was that?
PB: The challenge here is that this is a seven-day-a-week job, not only for staff, but for the director. Here you’ve got children whose lives are at risk, and there’s virtually zero tolerance for mistakes, and that’s a big challenge.
CSC: Five years is a lifetime in a DCFS director’s career. What is the biggest difference you see now from when you started?
PB: I think a cultural change. I think we’re moving from a case-management focus to where we embrace and want families to participate in making the decisions.
Now, we’re not there yet. I’ll just be honest. I think that’s an evolution, but that’s going to be the biggest substantive change.
We’ve added more staff and reduced the caseloads, but we’ve also changed to a more practical model that values parent, values youth, and [values] having them be responsible for some of their own choices.
CSC: You got the number of relative caregivers to over 50 percent. Why is that good and how did you do it?
PB: I think the department had a pretty good track record all along. But I looked at some national statistics just within the last 10 days. There’s a chart from about two years ago, which shows that some jurisdictions have as little as 15 percent of their kids with relatives.
The average is about 29 percent, if you take every jurisdiction in America. So, for us to have as large as a jurisdiction as we are and have over 50 percent of our kids placed with a relative, I think that is remarkable.
CSC: Under your watch, the department hired thousands of workers, but I hear that in some cases you have a very hard time hiring people. Have you done enough in terms of hiring in the work force?
PB: No, we need another 1,000 social workers to bring our caseloads down to where we want them to be.
CSC: The Civil Services Commission reinstated one of the four social workers involved in the Gabriel Fernandez case who you had fired. How do you feel about that, and how can the Board of Supervisors give your successor more power over firing bad actors?
PB: Well, I think we have the authority to fire them. So, the department goes through a process, and there’s an informed decision, and I made that decision.
What was frustrating was that the Civil Service Commission overturned that, and I do know that there is a review going on about the role of the Civil Service Commission. And I am hopeful that that review will determine a better way for the employee’s rights to be upheld. I felt very confident in the decision that was made about discharge. But I was unable to convince the commission that I was correct.
CSC: You were big on the idea of predictive analytics as a way to better gauge child abuse risk. What what are your hopes moving forward?
PB: I think predictive analytics is the frontier of child welfare. I think it is the future of child welfare.
CSC: Where do you see the county in five years on that front?
PB: I think there will be a predictive analytics tool that will be used by every worker to help them decide what they should do when they come in during the day or in the morning to help them set out their work schedule.
I think a big data system can help improve outcomes for children.
CSC: The Office of Child Protection is currently reviewing child abuse risk assessment policy and practice in the wake of Yonatan Aguilar’s death. Would you maintain the current system of risk assessment (Structured Decision Making) if you were to stay, or is it fatally flawed?
PB: Well, I think SDM [Structured Decision Making] should stay. Every tool we can offer to help a worker make an informed decision [is helpful]. There may be some debate about how it [SDM] is administered, but I don’t have anything that I would say would warrant replacing it or removing it.
CSC: During your tenure, the county saw the number of children in foster care steadily go up. Some would say this was at least in part due to your stronger stance on child safety. Why do you think the numbers went up? Do you have a guiding philosophy when it comes to child safety that you would like to see in your successor?
PB: Well, I think child safety is the most important thing. It can’t be the only thing we look at. We have to have a balanced program. So, I think that numbers went up frankly because of this tragic situation we had in the Antelope Valley [the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez].
I think what happened was that that the public and I were shocked at what happened to that young child, and I think the public started calling in, and maybe they wouldn’t have in the past.
We got thousands more phone calls, which resulted in thousands more investigations that resulted in more children being detained.
You’ll look in some jurisdictions right now and the opioid crisis is causing their detentions to rise. And in California, foster care detentions have increased over the last couple years. So, it’s not unique to L.A.
CSC: So, you don’t think the increase in foster care numbers was due to a policy change on your part?
PB: Well, I came in and said child safety to me is job one. I think workers looked at what was coming out of the administration and said, “We think that child safety also is important.”
What I tell all new workers is that if they feel something in the pit of their stomach, a dangerous situation where a child is in, they need to call their supervisor, call the public health nurse, and they need to feel like they have resources to help them make the decision.
I know there’s a debate in the community about whether you detain every child or you detain no children. It’s a balancing act; there is no simple solution for any of these cases.
CSC: Do you think that you differed at all from your predecessors in your “child safety first” stance?
PB: I don’t think that I differed. I came in probably a little naïve and said, “We need to protect every child, and we need to do whatever we can to protect every child.”
And so I started talking about child safety early on, but that was something that the board was aware of, and that there had been discussions at a pretty high level about the need to reinforce that focus.
CSC: Any ideas on who is going to replace you?
PB: I know the board is going to probably do a national search. Names always come up like, you know, Judge [Michael] Nash, or other people who are local. But I don’t know, and I don’t really have any idea.
But I will tell you, I think this will be a challenge for anybody.