Spotlight on Kids: L.A. County Fifth District Candidate Darrell Park

This week, The Chronicle of Social Change is publishing a series of posts from leading candidates vying for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Longtime Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich is being forced out by term limits after 36 years in office, and voters will go to the polls to select his successor starting on June 7. We asked these candidates to share their ideas on child welfare, juvenile justice, youth homelessness and education issues. To hear more about these issues, join us at a fifth district supervisorial candidates forum in Pasadena on May 10.

Entrepreneur Darrell Park develops start-up projects and advocates for the use of clean energy. The Altadena resident previously worked at the federal White House Office of Management and Budget.

Last year, Los Angeles County created the Office of Child Protection to ensure that child safety is embedded in all the county’s agencies and departments. What sort of child maltreatment prevention approaches and strategies should the county adopt and encourage to protect children?

Darrell Park
Darrell Park, candidate for the Fifth District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Every child must be treated as our most valuable resource. That must be our goal. As a child, my parents hosted 19 foster children over the years. Some stayed for a weekend, others stayed for years. Los Angeles County’s system is not workable, as it currently functions. But there are simple solutions to fix what is wrong with this system, and make L.A. County the model for the rest of the country.

For instance, we need many more caseworkers, but we can also increase the effectiveness of every case worker by 30 percent immediately. We have underutilized the use of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s motor pool. We can get workers to their meetings as fast as lights and sirens can allow, and that can be changed instantly. We also need to use our county support staff that can take dictation from case workers as they drive between appointments, so workers don’t have to waste time sitting at a desk.

Other successful programs across the country also involve outreach efforts to secure many volunteers to provide support for families, facilities and kids, so that every child is supported and surrounded by love. Studies have shown that for a teen to become a successful adult, they need at least seven positive relationships with other adults as they grow up. Unfortunately, that resource of human capital is deeply lacking for foster youth.

Los Angeles County finds itself in a foster parent recruitment crisis: the number of foster parent applicants is down 50 percent over the last decade. What would you do to better recruit and retain foster parents in the county?

Foster parents in Los Angeles County are treated like second-class citizens by the county and by the system. We must start from scratch in our approach to dealing with foster parents and properly supporting them. The process as it currently stands is something you wouldn’t wish on anyone. Every parent going through the process should be assigned a mentor who has been through the process and would be available to support, guide and help the parent. Additionally, every parent going through the process will have a county worker assigned to them, whose role is to remove any bureaucratic hassles to the process.

The best source of new foster parents are the friends, relatives and associates of current foster parents, but after years of mistreatment and neglect experienced by current parents, it is no surprise that recruitment is down. No one wants to sign up for that. By improving the treatment of current foster parents and making L.A. County a model for the treatment of foster parents, recruitment efforts among their friends, family and associates will automatically improve accordingly. 

Los Angeles County has been confronted by a sharp uptick in homelessness. A large percentage of the homeless population are youth. How can the county better support these vulnerable youth and get them off the streets?

We need more safe housing for every single vulnerable youth. Specific homeless shelters for youth should include counseling, rehab and instant access to a caseworker on site, with the full force of the county system to be able to make the decisions and take the steps to get the youth into a safe and secured living situation, whether it’s with a family member across the country, or in a foster home or group home. Youth shelters aren’t enough as is. We need centers with full staff of child protective services workers, and we need many of them spread out across the county. We need to pay special attention to the mental health needs of our youth and our transition-age youth. We need to pay special attention to the unique needs of transgender youth, a population increasingly finding themselves kicked out of homes.

We need to understand and provide services for the fact that if a child or transition-age youth is on the streets, they have experienced some sort of real trauma, and that needs to be addressed. It’s not enough anymore to simply have an emergency bed for them at night. From first contact, they need to know that they are loved, cared for and taken care of. Money spent as early as possible on these youth is the best money we could possibly spend. If we wait until these kids are adults, or in prison, the cost to the county is 100 times greater for each youth. There is absolutely no angle — moral, ethical or financial — where an all-inclusive, comprehensive service provided to homeless youth doesn’t make sense.

Los Angeles County has the largest juvenile justice system in the country. According to a recent review of the Probation Department’s budget and practices, the yearly cost to the county for a youth at one of its juvenile halls was roughly $234,000. For a youth living in one of the county’s camps, a stay there comes to a little more than $200,000 a year. What would you do to lower costs and improve outcomes for the county’s embattled juvenile justice system?

The juvenile justice system’s problems start when children are infants. We must, as a county, front-load resources to our most precious resource. For pennies on the dollar, we can have nutrition programs, we can have universal pre-K (pre-kindergarten programs), we can have tutoring programs, day-care and comprehensive after-care. The European and Japanese models for juvenile justice are far cheaper and have much better outcomes, enabling more of these youth to become effective adults. We must implement these systems and leave our failed models behind. We must emphasize care, education and rehabilitation above all else.

For one-third of the cost, we can substantially improve positive outcomes. This involves ending the school-to-juvenile incarceration pipeline, a trap that many African Americans and Latinos fall into. Youth should only be sent to juvenile detention centers in the most dire of circumstances, and those centers should look more like topnotch boarding schools than prisons. Putting a youth offender into a dress shirt, tie and sweater will automatically change the way that child feels about themselves. These solutions are not expensive to implement, and the long-term savings are through the roof.

As research has demonstrated, the educational outcomes for foster youth are much worse than those of their peers in the general population. What can the county Office of Education do to support the success of foster youth in schools?

The most important thing is for the kids to know that they are supported and loved. Our current system does not do this. Every foster child and family should get access to whatever tutoring they desire. The county will pay for additional classes, up to three per semester, which includes coding and computer programing, foreign language, music, art, etc. When kids are literally lugging trash bags of personal belongings from place to place, if we can give a kid access to extracurricular education that they love and that’s guaranteed no matter where they go, that is stability that is going to stick with that youth forever. If you are bringing a guitar from house to house, and you know guitar is what you love, it means so much for a child to get that, provided by the county, no matter where they are. And in the end, we still save money, as this child will be on a path to college or a trade other than the street when they age out.

We can also provide extra resources for transition-age youth free of charge, as they have started doing in Riverside County. This can be largely volunteer driven, but would include test prep, application prep, life skills, tutoring and mentoring, and continued assigned case workers who specialize in working with transition-age youth. If a child knows that there is continued stability and support when they head to college or trade school, it makes it easier for them to set goals and accomplish them.

You can read responses from other candidates running for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors here. Stay tuned for more posts from candidates every day this week. You can RSVP for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Fifth District Forum on Children’s Issues on May 10 by clicking here.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 313 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.