With a sister who serves as a juvenile dependency court judge in Sacramento County, Sheila Kuehl has a different, maybe deeper, perspective on child welfare than most politicians.
Peering into the dependency court system has allowed Kuehl, a candidate for Los Angeles County’s Third Supervisorial District, insight into one corner of child welfare chronically under immense strain.
“You will see paper files stacked up five feet on the floor, on the desks, on the chairs,” Kuehl said in an interview. “We have a huge caseload in the courts in family law and juvenile courts, which very seriously reduces judges’ ability to make timely decisions, especially about very young children and to be able to assess if the placement found by the social worker is adequate.”
Kuehl is hoping that she will be tapped to help find lasting solutions for the courts and other persistent challenges to the child welfare system like the sky-high caseloads faced by social workers, the large number of juvenile justice-involved foster youth and locating sufficient funding.
Kuehl and former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver are vying to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors during an especially critical moment for child welfare in the county. Voters in the county’s third district will decide the winner in a general election on November 4.
The five-person board controls an annual budget of $25 billion for almost 10 million residents across more than 4,000 square miles, making the supervisors some of the most powerful policymakers in the state.
Reform of the county’s gargantuan child welfare system is one of many important tasks facing the board next year. In particular, the Board of Supervisors will be tasked with implementing the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. The commission spent nine months reviewing the policies, practices and performance of the county’s child welfare system before delivering a report in April 2014.
The resulting set of reforms and recommendations, including the creation of an Office of Child Protection, were approved by the Board of Supervisors in June, setting up a challenging campaign to implement systemic and structural changes to the welfare system in the years ahead.
Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, a commissioner on the Blue Ribbon Commission and now one of nine members of the transition team that will guide the formation of the Office of Child Protection, hopes the incoming supervisors have imagination as well as a firm bearing when necessary.
“Too often from what I’ve seen, the supervisors have not had the ability to see where foundations are cracked in terms of county structure and then support individuals in rebuilding it,” Gilbert-Lurie said. “[The new supervisors] are going to have to have a vision of what a broader strategic plan should look like for children and then support a new director in bringing about that plan.”
Kuehl believes her experience as a legislator in Sacramento will provide her with the expertise and administrative savvy to make sure those changes happen. Before being termed out, Kuehl served for six years in the California State Assembly and eight years in the California State Senate, where she wrote many laws focusing on civil rights, domestic violence, healthcare access and increased services for pregnant and parenting teens in the foster care system.
“If I’m elected, I will be a person who makes these [foster] kids a priority,” said Kuehl. “It’s been part of the universe that I’ve always cared about very much. I’m really a social welfare, social justice person. That’s where I’ve spent most of my life, and I want to push and push but not in a critical way.”
“It doesn’t really help to yell at [child welfare workers] on Tuesday morning from the dais. It really has to do with working together to see sure they get the resources they need and that when things go haywire, you help by stepping up and trying to untangle things.”
According to an unduplicated count of children with allegations and substantiations of maltreatment and entries into foster care made available by the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, 135,309 had an allegation of child maltreatment in Los Angeles County in 2013. One in five of those children had those allegations substantiated. This translates into a heavy caseload for the Juvenile Dependency Court and other caseworkers in the county’s child welfare system.
One hurdle the new Board of Supervisors will have to contend with are the elevated caseloads faced by county social workers. Kuehl says that providing resources to social workers and other employees in the child welfare system are among the most pressing issues identified in the Blue Ribbon Commission Report. The 450 new social workers hired this year are not nearly enough to deal with a critical need.
“In my opinion that’s still inadequate to keep track of all these children and really assess whether or not they’re safe from month to month,” Kuehl said. “ I would like to see the caseload be decreased to no more than 20 cases per social worker. In terms of how social workers we would need to add, I’m not sure I have the answer to that.”
A former family law attorney, Kuehl would also like to implement provisions to improve outcomes for two vulnerable populations: the many youth who are represented in both the foster care and juvenile justice systems and older foster who are aging out of the system.
She hopes the county will experiment more with a Missouri model of juvenile justice that stresses lower caseloads for prison workers while providing greater therapeutic and educational opportunities for youth. And an expansion of transition planning for youth for aging out of the system could offer more to many foster youth who struggle with homelessness after leaving foster care.
“I would like to bring together the systems a little more to help transitioning foster youth in terms of providing low-income housing or homeless services, for instance,” Kuehl said.
Another part of Kuehl’s vision of an effective child welfare system under the forthcoming Office of Child Protection is finding ways to wangle new funding opportunities from different agencies that contribute to care for foster youth. A new child welfare czar could play a critical part in finding creative ways to use existing funding streams.
“In my experience, silos don’t break down—they become porous so that money can easily move from silo to silo,” she said. “Because federal and state funding is so restricted in its description—what it can used for—the counties’ hands are tied to a great extent. The county has to be very creative to break down not only its own silos but the silos from the state and the feds.”
Ultimately, Kuehl imagines a welfare system where care for foster youth and other vulnerable children is supported by a more holistic approach.
“I want to have a team of people work with every child and think of that child as a full system that has a number of needs,” Kuehl said, “so that the planning for that child’s education, shelter, freedom from violence, medical treatment and mental health treatment are all thought about together.
I would like to see a team for each child but it’s going to take a while before we work that out. That’s what I hope the new director will do.”
From the dependency court judges’ office to juvenile incarceration, Kuehl is ready to be part of that team.
Jeremy Loudenback is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story the author had confounded the total child population of Los Angeles County in 2013 with the number of unduplicated children who had received a report of child maltreatment. Instead of 135,309 unduplicated children with reports of child maltreatment, the author had written that there were “2,329,494 reports of child maltreatment in Los Angeles County in 2013.”