L.A. Candidates Tackle Child Welfare, Youth Justice, Homelessness at Community Forum

From left, Herb Wesson, Jr., Jan Perry, Holly Mitchell and Jake Jeong are running for the L.A. County’s Second District Supervisorial seat. Photo: Christine Ongjoco

Four of the top candidates in the race for the Los Angeles County Second District’s supervisorial seat met at a community forum Friday in South Los Angeles to discuss issues focused around vulnerable children, youth and families.

The four participating candidates — California State Senator Holly Mitchell, Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson, Jr., former L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, and lawyer Jake Jeong  — answered questions about child welfare, juvenile justice, homelessness and affordable housing. 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors oversees the nation’s largest locally administered child welfare system and directs policy for all of L.A. County, including efforts to end the rising homelessness crisis, a top issue locally and across the state. The second district represents 2 million people and covers a diverse swath of the county, including South L.A., East Hollywood, Koreatown, Culver City and Inglewood.

“This is the community that needs someone who’s going to step out and show out on their behalf,” Mitchell said. 

Several of the candidates agreed on overarching themes, like lowering social worker caseloads, moving the juvenile justice system in a more rehabilitative direction and decriminalizing homelessness and poverty. But at a forum hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Southern California Grantmakers and The Chronicle of Social Change, they discussed different routes to get to these goals. 

Child Welfare

The night kicked off with a question about “foster care panics,” when removals are kicked into high gear following the death of a child known to the child welfare system, like Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was tortured to death by his mother and her boyfriend in 2013. 

As moderator and The Chronicle of Social Change publisher Daniel Heimpel pointed out, the boy’s death led to “a raft of reforms” spearheaded by the second district’s current Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who the candidates are vying to succeed. 

California State Sen. Holly Mitchell with constituents at a community forum. Photo: Christine Ongjoco

Mitchell responded that children die both at the hands of abusive parents and in foster care and argued that lower social worker caseloads was the first step in a more thoughtful, intentional child welfare system.

“We’ve had children die slow deaths with multiple placements and the failure to reunify with their parents,” Mitchell said.

Both Mitchell and Perry talked about having social workers for parents, and the importance of supporting these frontline workers. Perry advocated for increasing administrative support so caseworkers can focus on their clients rather than paperwork. 

Wesson fielded a question about racial disproportionality in child welfare, saying he was “very interested” in the color-blinding experiment taking place in Nassau County, New York, where removal decisions are made without information on race or neighborhood. 

But, Wesson said, “Before we want to get to a place where we talk about an issue as important as that we actually need to have a system that works.”

In an interview before going on stage for the forum, Wesson advocated for stricter protocols around emergency removals and always “erring on the side of caution.”

Wesson also called for the foster care cutoff age to be raised from 18 to 21, but Mitchell reminded the audience that this concept of extended foster care has been the law in California since 2012. 

Perry talked about extending foster care services beyond 21 but didn’t have a new cutoff age. She suggested having some benchmarks of independence that youth should meet before they’re excluded from the system, like stable housing and the ability to find living-wage work. 

Jake Jeong, a business lawyer running a campaign focused mostly on housing and homelessness, keyed on the unaffordability and inaccessibility of child care, and suggested that child care centers would serve as extra eyes on vulnerable families, spotting the red flags and helping to get at-risk families referred for services. 

Juvenile Justice

The candidates were asked their opinions on the broader movement to shift the juvenile justice system away from punishment and toward a more rehabilitative model. L.A. County is considering separating the Probation Department from its juvenile justice system while Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has shifted oversight of the state’s juvenile justice system to a health agency. 

Wesson and Perry both talked about unmet mental health needs fueling issues in L.A. County’s juvenile justice system. Perry suggested using funds from the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) to target children with services around housing, family reunification and other things that have been shown by data to have an impact on children’s mental health and development. 

Mitchell pushed back on the idea of refurbishing closed juvenile halls and camps as vocational centers or service hubs, arguing that the outdated hall structures aren’t conducive to anything other than what they were built for — punishment.

“The halls — most of them are older than me. It just doesn’t work,” she said. 

She said that some camps slated for transformation, like Camp Challenger in Lancaster and Camp Gonzalez, could potentially be reimagined as vocational centers – but they’re too far away from the communities they’d be intended to serve. Many in the audience were vocally with her on this point. 

Herb Wesson, Jr. Photo: Christine Ongjoco

Jared O’Brien, an advocate with the Youth Justice Coalition, pushed the candidates to commit to supporting and investing in a youth and community development department

All candidates threw their support behind the idea.

“Our kids are like sponges, they will suck up any kind of positiveness that you give them,” Wesson said, adding that the input of all stakeholders was key. He said he’d envision such a department as promoting “the great equalizers” of sports, arts and education.

Homelessness and Affordable Housing

The discussion around housing issues gave Jeong a chance to shine. 

He called for completely blowing up the current plan being funded by Measure H and Proposition HHH, a pair of local tax initiatives bringing in billions to fight homelessness. Jeong argued that the money is being spent inefficiently and irresponsibly, resulting in too few housing units and taking too long. 

“The big picture is wrong,” Jeong said of spending nearly $400,000 per unit to build 8,000 units when the county’s homeless population is nearing 60,000. “This way, nothing’s going to change; this way, everything’s only going to get worse.” 

Wesson agreed that “every parcel of public owned land” should be developed with affordable housing. 

Mitchell countered those proposals, arguing that social scientists advise against housing projects that are 100 percent affordable units, and will result in underfunded schools in those districts. She said to develop healthy, integrated communities, all housing developments need to include 25 percent affordable units.

“This notion that we’re going to build all affordable only on public land is not the kind of community we want to build based on the research,” Mitchell said. 

The vote for the next second district supervisor is on March 3. Under California’s primary system, the top two candidates will advance to the final election in November.

The Chronicle also obtained the candidates’ written position statements on a number of questions related to these subjects. Click here to read those.

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change 126 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.