Despite swirling rumors about the potential fallout of Los Angeles County’s Tuesday 4-1-vote to hire Judge Michael Nash as its director of child protection, key players in child welfare and county government do not see it that way.
Top of these rumors was that Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director Philip Browning would step down if Nash were selected to head the Office of Child Protection (OCP.)
“Don’t believe all the rumors you may hear,” Browning said in an email. “I have always had a good personal relationship with Judge Nash.”
“I imagine the rumors were generated because as I recall Judge Nash was frustrated with the increase in child detentions a few years ago and believed that more children should remain at home and made comments to the news media. I have always said that children should remain in their own home if that can be done safely. Our highest priority is child safety.”
Another bit of gossip was that outgoing OCP Interim Director Fesia Davenport had grown frustrated about the lengthy hiring process of the permanent director and had withdrawn her name from consideration.
“I had heard the speculation,” Davenport said in an interview. “What I have told people is that if we sit around speculating all day what will happen, who is watching the front door? What we really need at this point in time is to continue moving in the same direction.”
Further, some sources had suggested that Davenport was next in line to lead DCFS in the event that Browning did indeed leave his post. Instead, Davenport said that she is focused on maintaining a high profile in central county government, and is using her last days as OCP director to illustrate how the office can be an effective tool in driving countywide attention to keeping children safe.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Davenport submitted testimony, while Nash, who was voted in less than an hour after her presentation, sat in the front row.
Davenport said she is hoping to have a role in County CEO Sachi Hamai’s efforts to give the Board of Supervisors more policy power over the myriad public agencies that have been reporting directly to the CEO in the past 10 years.
During the November 3 supervisors meeting, Davenport used the opportunity to lay out a clear plan for how the county should attack the phenomenon of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), and help the illicit industry’s victims. In a pair of reports issued to the Board of Supervisors on October 16 – two of five reports the OCP will be releasing before Davenport hands the reins over to Nash at the end of the year – Davenport recommended collapsing the current, various and unwieldy collection of task forces and working groups dedicated to CSEC under the authority of one integrated group, of which the OCP would be final arbiter. The report also called for use of county facilities as “Safe Places” for minors who are victims of sexual exploitation.
“We know that the county, despite its vast resources and staff, that we can’t be everywhere all the time,” Davenport said from the dais. “The question on the table is, is there something the county can do in a very short period of time that can provide a victim who is being watched or pursued a sanctuary?”
In an allusion to the limited powers that Judge Nash will be inheriting, Supervisor Hilda Solis questioned why the OCP would not have a more direct role in the CSEC Integrated Leadership Team that Davenport recommended, making it clear that the supervisors have final say on anything the office brings before them.
For her part, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl commended Davenport, and pointed out how the work was emblematic of the role of the Office of Child Protection and the child protection oriented mission statement the county adopted in April.
“The board was interested in this issue [CSEC] in a chaotic and disparate way,” Kuehl said. “Everyone had good ideas. Our wisdom was to see if you could make any sense and bring them together, and I believe the work you did is extremely important. This fits very well in long term thinking about Office of Child Protection’s mission and the wider mission we have adopted in terms of taking care of all the children in our care.”
Beyond her work on CSEC issues, in an interview Davenport rattled off a list of reports and activities she will complete or initiate before her tenure is up.
By late November, she said the OCP would issue a report on the efficacy of pairing public health nurses with DCFS social workers in investigations of child maltreatment. This was a key recommendation of the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which was sunsetted in 2014, and also called for the creation of the Office of Child Protection.
“This will be a very early look-see,” Davenport said in the interview. “We will take 90 days of data, and see what we are seeing. What value are nurses bringing to the table?”
The OCP will also issue an update on the progress of implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations, and another on the disproportionately high prescription of psychotropic drugs to children in foster care. The latter will be followed with a December 14 convening with roughly 300 psychiatrists, therapists and administrators in the L.A. Care Health Plan, which provides mental health services to low income Angelinos.
Lastly, Davenport said that she will share a strategic plan on implementing the remaining Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations with the board of supervisors before leaving office.
“I called Judge Nash this morning and congratulated him,” Davenport said during the Monday interview. “One of my goals, as I transition out, is to position this office for success.
“I am not trying to leave Judge Nash with a bunch of homework I didn’t get done.”
Shortly after Davenport’s presentation, Nash was called to the dais to be voted in. Supervisor Don Knabe was the one vote against his appointment.
Shortly after the vote, Knabe issued a statement explaining why he was opposed to hiring Nash, and pointing out that DCFS, under the leadership of Browning, has made strides toward better protecting children throughout the “drama and distractions of the past two years.”
“DCFS and this Board have a moral and legal mandate to protect children from abuse and neglect. No Commission has ever needed to remind us of this, let alone a new OCP.”
“Change takes time and we certainly have more to do. What I would hope the County gets out of this lengthy process is someone who will work with the Department and help them continue to be successful. I would be sorely disappointed if all we get are more reports and more unsolicited criticism. Our most vulnerable children deserve better.”