The Usual Suspects

LA’s child welfare community mulls who should head up the newly created Office of Child Protection.

Today, Los Angeles County’s five-member Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider candidates for the newly minted Office of Child Protection (OCP) in a closed-door session.

While the idea of designating a leader to integrate the county’s vast child protection system has generated much speculation throughout the county’s child welfare community, only one candidate has taken the step of going on the record to announce his candidacy.

In April, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection culminated nine months of research, interviews, and hearings about the state of the child welfare system in Los Angeles County by releasing a report, “The Road to Safety for Our Children.” In June, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted to approve the report’s recommendations, including the creation of a new Office of Child Protection helmed by a veritable child protection czar for the county.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit executive search firm hired to find candidates for the position has been interviewing candidates for the job this week, and the Board of Supervisors will consider those candidates in a closed-door session today. In September, m/Oppenheim Associates sent an email with a job description for the position to many members of the Los Angeles child welfare community, kicking off a flurry of gossip about which leaders would toss their hat into the ring.

The transition team charged with setting up the OCP has said it hopes to have a director in place by the end of the year, but so far many players are tight-lipped about the progress.

Search firm principal Mark Oppenheim would not discuss his team’s progress in finding candidates out of fears that it would contaminate the process.

While Oppenheim searched for candidates, The Chronicle of Social Change had on- and off-the-record conversations with many prominent members of the county’s child welfare community in the hopes of mining the rumor mill for hints as to who some of the candidates would be. The following summarizes what we know thus far.

The first candidate many have suggested is current Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director Philip Browning. Hired in 2012, the former head of the county’s Department of Public Social Services knows Los Angeles County and its massive child welfare system.

Browning has brought stability to the department after a tumultuous period of failed leadership, though his administration has been hit hard by several high-profile tragedies like the death of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez.

Browning told The Chronicle that he had told recruiters he was not interested in the job.

Another name that emerged as a possible candidate is former DCFS Director David Sanders. Sanders resigned in 2006 to work for Seattle-based Casey Family Programs. But in recent months, he has remained at the forefront of child protection reform in Los Angeles County as the chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection and a member of the transition team.

Our sources have said that Sanders is not considering the job, but is serving as an intermediary for interested candidates.

One person who has expressed interest in the OCP position is Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court who will step down at the end of the year.

Last month, he told The Chronicle of Social Change he was eyeing the new job.

Kathy Icenhower, president of Shields for Families, a large private service provider, said  Nash is up for a new responsibility.

“I think Judge Nash would be a great candidate,” Icenhower said. “There’s no one that’s been a stronger advocate for these kids.”

But others in the Los Angeles County child-welfare community wonder if Nash would be able to rein in his blunt personality and unconventional approach while working for the micro-managing Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Nash has courted controversy in his career, earning an outspoken reputation for his efforts to ease media access to the county’s juvenile courts and strident calls to improve Los Angeles’s child protective services.

Whoever gets the job will need to be a collaborative presence, with enough political capital to encourage members of Los Angeles’ various child-serving departments—DCFS, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Public Health, the Los Angeles County Office of Education, and law-enforcement agencies, among others—to work together.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s report acknowledged that “no single entity oversees all aspects of child protection” in the county, pushing for increased communication and coordination among child-welfare departments in the county.

Blue Ribbon Commissioner Dan Scott says that Astrid Heppenstall Heger, director of the Violence Intervention Program at the Los Angeles County-U.S.C. medical center, should be considered, thanks to her long history of working with different agencies in Los Angeles County.

“I’ve seen her in a lot of county meetings over the past 25 years. When she speaks, people listen,” Scott said. “She understands all the aspects of the child welfare world, from the medical side to working with law enforcement.”

But thus far, Heger says, she is not interested in the gig. But she has some advice for the county.

“If I was interviewing candidates for the job, which I am not, I would want to ask if they’ve been to any of the medical hubs,” she said. “What is their understanding of what goes on there and how things are supposed to work? Do they know what happens when a child is detained? They’re going to have a good idea of the services we need to provide to children in the system and what the barriers are.”

Another potential candidate that insiders named is former Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member Yolie Flores.

Along with potential local contenders, speculation has also surrounded candidates from out of town. Rumors have swirled that Sheila Poole, the acting commissioner of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services, is being considered.

But going with an out-of-towner as the new head of OCP could come with complications. Several observers expressed concern that such a person would be on a steep learning curve. Understanding the dimensions and personalities across Los Angeles County’s vast child-welfare systems could take at least a year, if not longer, to get up to speed. Not to mention learning how to work with the often-intransigent Board of Supervisors.

But the clock is ticking on Los Angeles County’s reform efforts. Without movement on a new leader for the OCP, many other reforms run the risk of perishing on the vine.

“I think we did a wonderful job with our work on the Blue Ribbon Commission, but if there’s not someone to lead the way on the recommendations we suggested, we’re going to be right back to where we were at the start,” BRC member Dan Scott said. 

Jeremy Loudenback is a reporter with The Chronicle of Social Change. Daniel Heimpel contributed to this story.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 319 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.