It is a county within a county.
Los Angeles County’s fifth is the largest of the five supervisorial districts, where the suburban sprawl of Pasadena gives way to the exurban expanse of the Antelope Valley.
And after 36 years, the district’s leader, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, is being termed out of office, leaving eight candidates to fight over the fate of the fifth, and the opportunity to play a guiding hand in county larger in size and population than all but seven of the United States.
It was here, on May 22, 2013, that the Palmdale Fire Department got the call that an 8-year-old boy, Gabriel Fernandez, had stopped breathing. The boy would die two days later. Despite multiple calls of abuse lodged with the county’s Department of Children and Family Services and law enforcement agencies, the young boy was tortured and eventually beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.
The Los Angeles Times broke the story, and local media outlets quickly followed suit: Gabriel’s smiling school portrait and the wretched account of his death quickly dominated the news cycle in Los Angeles.
The Board of Supervisors, which oversees all the public agencies that serve children in the vast county, felt compelled to act. They appointed a “Blue Ribbon” commission, which more than a year later, came up with a series of recommendations to improve how the county prevents child abuse, protects children known to be in harm’s way, and cares for them when their parents cannot. After a lengthy process, four of the county’s five supervisors selected a prominent juvenile court judge to lead a new office tasked with implementing those recommendations.
Since the June 2013 board motion calling for the creation of the aforementioned “Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection,” this publication has written scores of stories stories on the county’s efforts to reform its child protection system. Our colleagues working for other media outlets joined in, and combined this group of Los Angeles reporters has – through sustained attention – been able to affect the pace of progress.
But, I fear, without that sustained attention, the system that protects the county’s children can easily become a footnote to issues that are either assumed to be more important, or are simply more entertaining. That is until the next child death occurs, the media descends and the county reacts.
It is in the intermittent periods between these tragedies that the attention needs to be ratcheted up.
And so, into the contested race for Gabriel’s district we jump. On Tuesday May 10, we will host a candidates forum, featuring five of the eight candidates for the fifth district.
In the lead-up to the event, we asked our five guests to respond to five questions, which will form the foundation of our inquiry on Tuesday night.
On Tuesday, we will go deeper, using their responses to ask more probing questions as to how these candidates would, if elected, keep children and youth issues at the front of Los Angeles politics.
We hope you join us.