Five candidates for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors spoke on Tuesday about how a mix of professional and personal experiences have shaped how they approach the serious issues that affect the futures of children in L.A. County, such as preventing child abuse, reforming foster care and improving outcomes in the juvenile justice system.
These five are among eight candidates vying to replace Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich in the fifth district, which includes a large part of the San Gabriel Valley, the Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys and part of the San Fernando Valley.
The fifth district has been at the center of many discussions around child-maltreatment prevention in response to the 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was killed by his mother’s boyfriend after the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had received multiple calls about his abuse.
Speaking at a candidates forum at Pasadena City College were candidates Elan Carr, Mitchell Englander, Kathryn Barger, Bob Huff and Darrell Park.
The primary election will be held on June 7. Unless one candidate garners a majority of votes, the top two candidates will compete in the November 8 election.
Carr, a deputy district attorney, received a question from the audience about his thoughts on the criminal charges recently filed against four social workers related to their roles in handling the Fernandez case. Carr said the arrests will set an important example.
“I think my boss [District Attorney] Jackie Lacey did a very great thing and sent a message that we better take this seriously because if you see evidence of this, you better act,” he said. “We are responsible as a community for these kids.”
Carr said his experience prosecuting youth offenders in juvenile courts has given him perspective about the neglect and abuse many of these youths have endured. He endorsed splitting the county’s Probation Department into two systems for juveniles and adults, with officers who are specially trained to meet the needs of youth on probation.
Englander, who serves as a Los Angeles City Councilmember, spoke about the need for increasing awareness about child maltreatment to spur more people to report signs of child abuse to DCFS. He noted that the city of Los Angeles has implemented an incentive program that can pay someone up to $50,000 for reporting a fatal hit-and-run collision that leads to a criminal conviction.
“It doesn’t have to be incentive-based necessarily, but we have to let people know that it’s okay to report a friend a neighbor, a loved one,” Englander said. “We have to let people know that they have to say something.”
Englander also spoke in depth about his experiences growing up in poverty and being raised for part of his childhood by an uncle who was killed by gang members. This led him toward a career in public safety and involvement in nonprofit organizations that serve at-risk youth, he said.
Barger, who has spent more than 25 years as working for longtime Supervisor Antonovich, said the county has “come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go” in addressing children’s issues. Barger started as Antonovich’s health and children’s deputy and for the past 15 years has served as chief deputy.
Barger praised the decisions to form a new Office of Strategic Partnerships that would help harness the involvement of the county’s philanthropic community and to hire retired judge Michael Nash as the director of the Office of Child Protection.
Asked about expanding the use of big data to predict the likelihood of a child being abused, such as a recent DCFS pilot program around risk-assessment, Barger said she fully supports the idea, not only to assess the risk of maltreatment, but also for other issues, such as assessing the needs of transition-age foster youth.
“If we could have had that in place years ago, we could have decreased the homeless population as it relates to the foster children that are on the streets,” she said.
Huff, who is a state senator representing California’s 29th senate district, reflected on his mother’s work in a juvenile court and as a foster parent. He was asked about the idea of increasing the age that foster children age out of the system from 21 to 24. He said the idea “makes sense” and that he would consider testing it as a pilot program in the county if he were elected.
Huff said he supported the 2010 California Fostering Connections to Success Act (Assembly Bill 12), which extended foster-care benefits to youth from age 18 to 21.
“Frankly, extending it to 21 hasn’t helped as much as we hoped it would,” he said. “These kids want to get out of the system. It is so broken, the last thing they want to do is spend one more day in it.”
Huff also said he also wants to monitor and make sure social workers have appropriate caseloads to avoid burnout.
Park, an entrepreneur who previously worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C., said his “very hippy-ish” parents cared for 19 foster children throughout his childhood. Park said the county’s child welfare system is much worse than it was when his parents were fostering and that the decrease in foster homes is a result of the county’s poor treatment of foster parents.
Park’s ideas to increase the productivity of social workers include having social workers use a trained typist to more quickly file their reports and allowing social workers be escorted to houses in county using Sheriff’s Department vehicles that can travel faster than social workers can go in their personal vehicles.
Park spoke about the need for big changes in the county’s foster care system. He said every foster child in the system should be assisted by 10 volunteers, including a mentor who has been through the system.
Tuesday’s forum, Spotlight on Kids: Fifth District Forum on Children’s Issues, was organized by Fostering Media Connections and sponsored by Southern California Grantmakers.
For more information about the candidates’ views on child welfare and juvenile justice, read their responses to questions about children and youth issues here.