Top Story: Social Services

‘Unseen, unheard and unsafe’

April 11, 2014

Blue ribbon commission chair David Sanders,center, at the meeting Thursday, with Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, left, and retired judge Dickran M. Tevrizian.

Los Angeles County’s child protection system is broken and demands immediate fixes, according to a draft of a new blue ribbon commission report that paints a troubling portrait of dysfunction, secrecy and largely ineffectual struggles to turn the tide on decades of tragedy and trauma.

“On our watch, many of Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable children are unseen, unheard and unsafe,” the report says in its opening sentence. “In eight months of hearing hundreds of hours of testimony, the commission never heard a single person defend our current child safety system.”

The panel issued numerous recommendations, including creation of a powerful “child protection czar”—a single entity responsible for coordinating child welfare efforts across departmental boundaries and reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors.

The commission’s report, approved Thursday in its draft form, will go before the Board of Supervisors on April 22, with a longer follow-up discussion set for May 20.

Philip Browning, head of the Department of Children and Family Services since 2012, said he agrees with some of the report’s assessments, including a finding that persistent turnover in DCFS leadership over the years has “devastated morale and created endless directives.” He said he welcomes the report’s recognition that it takes an array of departments and agencies—not just DCFS—to protect kids.

“The concept of having everybody be responsible is certainly a good one. The problem is…any time we get a new set of recommendations, we do have to pull people off doing whatever they’re currently doing to respond to those recommendations.”

Browning said he wishes the commission had acknowledged recent progress within the department, including a dramatic expansion of training, a plan to hire more staff and reduce caseloads, creation of a foster care search engine, and a new data-driven approach to make DCFS operate more effectively.

“I was a little surprised that they didn’t look more closely at our strategic plan, the first one in 10 years,” Browning said.  “A lot of things that they’re talking about are already included in our strategic plan.”

The 10-member commission started work following the death of Gabriel Fernandez, a Palmdale boy who died last year following numerous reports of abuse, neglect and torture. The Board of Supervisors was divided about the necessity of creating the blue ribbon panel in the first place; Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe said they wanted to let reforms initiated by Browning have a chance to take root before adding more recommendations to the hundreds that have piled up over the years.

But in the end, all five supervisors appointed members to the panel, including retired judges, a social work educator, advocates for children and families, and a former head of DCFS, commission chair David Sanders.

The commission held 15 public hearings in which it heard testimony about “overwhelming” caseloads, infants spending hours on desks because of a foster home shortage and young people who can’t trust or even reach their social worker.

The draft report depicts a county bureaucracy lurching from crisis to crisis yet failing to coordinate among departments that should be working together. Budget and planning processes are opaque, and communication among those seeking to help children is “needlessly” hampered by various perceived confidentiality restrictions that end up hiding problems instead of correcting them, the report said.

In short, there is “a state of emergency that demands a fundamental transformation of the current child protection system,” the commission found.

It said the Board of Supervisors needs to take action immediately. Commissioners noted that they had provided the board with an interim report in December that included recommendations that could have been implemented at once.

“Since then, another 5,000 referrals of child abuse and neglect have been investigated without the benefit of systemic reform,” the report said. “Each day we wait for reform, 40 more infants are reported as possible victims of abuse or neglect.”

Members of the blue ribbon panel, meeting Thursday at the Hall of Administration, unanimously voted to recommend establishment of a single entity that would oversee all aspects of child protection in the county and have the authority to channel resources across bureaucratic boundaries to get things done.

But commissioners were divided on how best to accomplish that. A majority said a new agency, which could be called the Office of Child Protection, should be formed. But three commissioners said it would be preferable to work within the system and give enhanced responsibility to an existing entity to guide the process.

For his part, DCFS chief Browning said “the devil is in the details” about how such a system would operate.

“I would really like to see somewhere that has worked well. It’s a novel concept,” Browning said. “It’s going to be a potential issue if someone has the authority to move money without much oversight…I would be surprised if the board would give up their authority to do that.”

Beyond its call for placing a single powerful entity in charge, the blue ribbon commission also found that, despite responding to years of crises, the county has failed to establish a clear child protection mission with measurable goals: “The board must mandate that child safety is a top priority,” the draft report said. “It must articulate a child-centered, family-focused countywide mission.”

Part of that mission should focus on protecting children before abuse can happen—something that so far has all too often taken a backseat to reacting to an onslaught of high profile cases, the commission said. That should include pairing public health nurses with social workers on home visits involving infants, creating an “early warning” alert process within the county’s information-sharing Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System, and focusing intensively on those at highest risk.

“Children reported to DCFS prior to age one are at the highest risk for later serious injury or fatality,” the report said.

The report is still being revised, but this link, posted by KPCC, offers a look at the work in progress prior to Thursday’s meeting.

Posted 4/11/14

A Cinderella moment

March 27, 2014

Foster teen Lisa Slayton gets a makeover at last year's Glamour Gown extravaganza. “It was like a blessing,” she says. “Fabulous.”

It was an invitation that another teenager might have taken for granted. Alexx Solyom had been asked to her first winter formal, a masquerade ball in January at Pasadena’s posh Brookside Country Club. It was her senior year. The entire Class of 2014 would be there.

“But I’d been in foster care for about two and a half years,” the 17-year-old said, “and I was living from foster placement to foster placement. I couldn’t afford a dress—I was in a group home and there weren’t enough funds.”

Enter Pam Bingham, the court-appointed special advocate for Alexx, who knew about a program just for girls in her situation. Within days, the teenager was heading home with a free, brand new, floor-length dress.

Their fairy godmother? Glamour Gowns, a collaboration between CASA of Los Angeles and hundreds of volunteers—many veterans of show business—who believe that girls in the foster care system should, like any girl, get to feel like Cinderella on prom night.

“It was a black and white dress, a long dress with crystals going around the front,” says Alexx, recalling how Bingham had kept it at her house in San Gabriel until the big night so it wouldn’t end up being damaged or vandalized in the group home.

“I felt like a princess.”

Now in its 13th year, Glamour Gowns is gearing up this week for its largest-ever Cinderella moment, an event that on Saturday will offer a free prom outfit and day of beauty to some 500 high school girls in foster care.

Initially launched by a handful of volunteers with a few dozen cast-off dresses, Glamour Gowns has since outfitted thousands of foster girls for proms, homecoming dances and winter formals. Its signature spring event, geared to prom season, has become such an annual extravaganza that the Los Angeles Convention Center now houses it.

Alexx Solyom, a selfie before the winter formal.

Sponsors include: Chinese Laundry, which donates new shoes; Jenette Bras, which custom-fits each girl with appropriate foundation garments, and D.J. Bronson Inc., a Commerce-based apparel manufacturer that over the past five years has donated more than 5,000 new dresses—and, occasionally, tuxes—to grateful foster girls.

Meanwhile, members of I.A.T.S.E. Motion Picture Costumers Local 705, Costume Designers Guild Local 892 and Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 768 donate their time, as do hair and makeup stylists.

“I know to some people it might sound frivolous, but it absolutely isn’t,” says Jennifer Parker-Stanton, a former costumer for film and TV who has been involved in nearly every Glamour Gowns event since its founding.

More than 28,000 children are under the jurisdiction of the dependency court in Los Angeles County and more than 17,000 live in foster care. Often, Parker-Stanton says,  their caretakers can’t—or choose not to—afford “non-essential” yet emotionally important items like prom regalia. As a result, she says, girls in foster care often simply opt out of key adolescent milestones rather than risk more disappointment in a life that often is already painful.

“This is about self-esteem,” says Parker-Stanton, whose costuming work ranged from the TV series “Nash Bridges” to the Academy Award-winning “Million Dollar Baby”.

“The first time I did this, the girl I was working with looked in the mirror and said, ‘People say I’m pretty, but until now, I never thought so.’ And I thought, ‘All this time that I’ve spent running around, shopping for famous people, when you can change a life with just one dress.’”

“It’s a social experience that the girls never forget,” agrees Michael Williams, a veteran social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services who has seen at least five of his young clients transformed by the program. “Most of them have never gotten this kind of attention before. “

Anissa McNeil, a Glamour Gowns Committee member and CASA of Los Angeles board member, says the teenagers are often most surprised to see that the outfits are department store-quality merchandise, not hand-me-downs or seconds.

“They’re like, ‘You mean I get to keep this?’ And we say yes. ‘And it’s all new?’ Yes,” McNeil laughs. “One girl made me pinky promise one year that everything was free.”

McNeil says, the group makes sure no one leaves empty-handed.

“Last year, we had a plus-size young lady and she didn’t see any dresses she liked that were the right size, and you could just see her thinking, ‘Nothing ever works for me.’ She was saying, ‘Thanks for inviting me, I’ll just take a purse if that’s okay,’ when the seamstresses came in and…made a gown for her, right there on the spot. When she tried it on, and it fit like a glove, the look on her face—well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

McNeil says the event is particularly rewarding for her because she, too, spent time in foster care. “My mother had a nervous breakdown, and my brother and I became homeless when I was six,” she remembers. “Our grandmother raised us and became our legal guardian.”

Today, McNeil has a doctorate and a practice as an educational consultant, but remembers keenly the challenges that face foster children. She had to work two jobs in high school to pay for her prom dress, she says, and because she is over six feet tall, it had to be specially tailored. Then, on the big night, her date failed to show up.

“Hey, that’s what happens when you go for a playboy,” she recalls laughing. “But as my brother and I tell people, if you can overcome being homeless, you can overcome anything. I was determined to go, and I went by myself—in a gown that was long and blue and elegant.”

Posted 3/27/14

 

Reinventing DCFS

August 8, 2013

Philip Browning, at a community meeting, is leading the charge to transform DCFS from within. Photo/L.A. Times

Despite the highly-publicized creation of a blue-ribbon commission to investigate potential flaws in Los Angeles County’s child protection system, the Department of Children and Family Services already is in the midst of a sweeping transformation aimed at boosting the beleaguered agency’s effectiveness and accountability.

The breadth of the year-long effort was disclosed publicly for the first time this week by DCFS Director Philip Browning during a presentation before the Board of Supervisors. Appointed less than a year ago by the board, Browning has spearheaded the department’s first strategic plan in a decade—“an adventure,” he calls it—revamping everything from the training and deployment of social workers to the creation of a database identifying children with the greatest levels of instability in their lives.

And, as he did while previously heading the county’s Department of Public Social Services, Browning has brought a statistical sensibility to virtually all facets of DCFS operations, holding managers accountable for achieving quantifiable measures of effectiveness. At the same time, he’s worked closely with, and sometimes bucked, the department’s union to keep more experienced social workers on the front-lines, where they can better protect children in potentially abusive homes.

In recent weeks, concerns have been expressed by some officials, including Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, that the board-appointed Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection might slow the department’s momentum by making burdensome demands on the agency during the panel’s six-month examination. But the commission’s newly-installed chairman, former DCFS Director David Sanders, insisted in an interview last week that he’s sensitive to the potential for distraction and expects the panel’s work to focus more broadly on the network of agencies entrusted with protecting the county’s children.

In fact, the non-profit Casey Family Programs, where Sanders is now a top executive, is helping DCFS streamline a 6,000-page policy manual that staffers rightly complained was impossible to penetrate, Browning said during his presentation before the board this week, noting that the rewrite was one of numerous “game changers” underway.  Among the others:

  • Creating a radically different training program for incoming social workers. The curriculum at six local universities that channel social workers to the county is being standardized, revamped and expanded from 8 weeks to 52, with an emphasis on “much more critical thinking and much more real life experience,” Browning said. A key element is being created at USC, where a stage set depicting a roach-infested house in a gang-dominated neighborhood is under construction. Social workers in training will interact with a cast of role-playing adults and children in simulated real life situations, as professors and other students observe the action from behind a one-way mirror.
  • Devising an unprecedented data-driven model for customizing social worker caseloads. Previously, caseloads remained largely uniform throughout the department’s 18 field offices. But under Browning’s direction, the agency has created a statistical formula that takes into account the prevalence of certain risk factors among children served by each office. Under the “caseload equity” initiative, social workers in offices with the highest risk scores will be given fewer cases, allowing them to devote more attention to children facing the greatest dangers.
  • Preventing emergency response staffers from transferring to new posts after a year. Browning, to the consternation of some of the agency’s unionized social workers, has imposed a freeze on the longtime practice of front-line workers transfering after a single year. These jobs are among the agency’s most demanding and stressful, involving life-and-death decisions about whether to leave children with their families or remove them. Although the union contract allows workers to request such transfers, Browning says he made a “management decision” to block the practice because children were being ill-served by the chronic turnover and brain drain. He’s now pushing for a three-year minimum assignment.
  • Developing and implementing a “high risk database” to identify children who need more intensive intervention. Using data mining techniques, the department created an algorithm, believed to be the first of its kind anywhere, that weighted various factors—including how often a child runs away, has a psychiatric hospitalization or moves to different homes—to find those among the 35,000 children in its care who are the most unstable and at risk of aging out of the system into homelessness, joblessness and despair. They are then targeted for an array of tailored treatment services. Browning said 100 high-risk children already have been provided more permanency and stability with a family member, a foster family or a group home.

During his presentation, Browning acknowledged that, while progress has been made, it’s only a start. And he gave the board an example from his world to consider. From their desktop computers, he told the supervisors, “you can see any hotel in the world. You can see what the pool looks like. You can make a reservation.”

But when it comes to using a search engine to find an available home for a foster child, he said, “we can’t do that well in Los Angeles County. We can’t tell if there’s a vacancy for a 2-year-old. That’s something we’ve been working on…and I think we’re going to get there.”

Posted 8/8/13

Another hard look at DCFS

July 25, 2013

A blue ribbon panel will investigate the vast network of agencies responsible for keeping children safe.

An independent commission created as Los Angeles County’s latest effort to keep children safer in its sprawling child welfare system took final shape this week, as the Board of Supervisors named the last four appointees, ranging from child advocates to the former head of the county’s juvenile court.

The appointments to the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Child Protection rounded out a 10-member panel established after the May 24 death of Gabriel Fernandez.  The 8-year-old Palmdale boy was left by social workers in the care of his mother and her boyfriend despite multiple reports of abuse, neglect and torture.

The mother and boyfriend are being held on murder charges and several employees have been placed on desk duty pending results of an internal investigation at the Department of Children and Family Services.

In the wake of that case and others, however, a majority of the supervisors also believed that that the child protective system needed a deeper examination by an independent investigative body modeled after the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, which last year recommended reforms after disclosures of deputy brutality in the county lockup.

Ex-DCFS chief David Sanders

Former DCFS Director David Sanders, appointed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said in an interview that the panel will have a broad mandate to investigate the network of agencies that interact in the child welfare system, including law enforcement and schools.

“This is a full, countywide, responsibility and not just a DCFS responsibility,” Sanders stressed in an interview. “What’s most critical is to understand very specifically how many children are being seriously injured due to abuse and neglect. What are the numbers of fatalities? How many children are being re-injured after they come to the attention of the agency? And how can the county improve safety for children?”

Retired Judge Terry Friedman, appointed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said the panel will need to distinguish itself from earlier investigations that have led to management shakeups and hundreds of recommended reforms.

“It’s something we need to address—are we different or are we just the next installment of a longstanding litany of good-intended efforts?” Friedman said.  “And if not, how do we approach this issue differently?”

One challenge the commission will face, he added, is the belief that, with the right set of solutions, child deaths can be halted altogether in a system as big and complex as Los Angeles County’s.

“That isn’t to say we can’t make it less likely,” said Friedman, whose 15 years on the bench included stints as the supervising judge for the juvenile dependency court and presiding judge for the juvenile court.

“But realistically, the challenges are so embedded in our society that the best one can hope for is to recognize possibilities and limitations and be realistic in order to make some progress, rather than pretending that perfection is possible.”

Friedman was named to the panel on Tuesday, along with Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, a founding board member and past chair of the Alliance for Children’s Rights and a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, and Janet Teague, who has served both on the Alliance board and on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families. Also appointed this week was Gabriella Holt, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education and a current member of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission.

Like Friedman, Gilbert-Lurie was appointed by Yaroslavsky. Supervisor Don Knabe appointed Holt and Teague.

The four completed a series of earlier appointments that included:

  • Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work, appointed by Ridley-Thomas.
  • Richard Martinez, a former foster youth who is superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, and Andrea Rich, former president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both appointed by Supervisor Gloria Molina.
  • Dan Scott, a recently retired veteran of the Sheriff’s Department’s Special Victim’s Bureau, and DickranTevrizian, a retired U.S. District Court judge, both appointed by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

Among the more intriguing picks was Sanders, who oversaw DCFS from 2003 until 2006. Now based in Seattle, he left to become executive vice president of systems improvement for a national foundation specializing in foster care, the Casey Family Programs.

Since his departure, the department has had five directors and acting directors, with the latest turnover occurring last year, when veteran county executive Philip Browning agreed to take over.  Browning—who had overhauled the county’s child support efforts and the Department of Public Social Services—was implementing a new strategic plan and training curriculum at DCFS when the Fernandez death was disclosed.

“It’s a tough job,” Sanders said, adding that he hopes the commission will focus on the big child protective picture “rather than interfere or kind of rehash issues that have been examined multiple times.”

“The demands on the department can be quite daunting,” he added. “But I think Phil is somebody who has a lot of experience in the county, and I hope the commission can augment his work and take some of the pressure off him for issues that are really countywide.”

Posted 7/25/13

Bringing star power to mental health

July 9, 2013

“Profiles of Hope” lets celebrities like producer/director Paris Barclay share how they overcame emotional pain.

It started as a handful of inspirational stories, shared by a few brave volunteers—how this one found help for depression, or how that one dealt with the fear of being labeled “mentally ill.”

Three years later, “Profiles of Hope,” the Department of Mental Health’s online video series, has become an unlikely hit as a public health campaign. Celebrities such as Rick Springfield, Mariel Hemingway and Paris Barclay are sharing their personal stories. Last year, it won a local Emmy in the information/public affairs series category. And on Thursday, the mental health department announced that 60-second versions of the videos have been nominated in this year’s public service announcement category. Meanwhile, a half-hour show comprised of the segments just wrapped its second season on KLCS-TV, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s public television station. And most recently, “Profiles of Hope” has been discussed as a training tool for counselors in the Cal State University system.

“A lot of people have sent emails about how much this has moved them,” says the acclaimed Barclay, who directed and produced much of the award-winning HBO series, “In Treatment.” “More importantly, they’ve also shared their own stories, which is the real goal—to start the conversation. One person reveals what’s happened to them, and another person comes back with their story. It’s part of the human process, the circle of revelation.”

The Department of Mental Health’s public affairs director, Kathleen Piché, said the goal of the videos is “to bust the stigma of mental illness, and not just by hearing from providers and clinics and the usual suspects.” The segments came about in 2010, she says, shortly after the creation of the Los Angeles County Channel. “They asked us if we wanted to do some programming,” Piché recalls.

At the time, she says, the Department of Mental Health was looking for new ways to help people overcome the shame and fear that often accompanies emotional and psychological problems.

“A lot of people say they resist getting help because they’re afraid of how others will see them,” Piché says. “But the earlier people get help, the better their outcomes, and right now, the average length of time from the time people first get symptoms to the time they get help is about 10 years.”

Piché says she initially saw the videos as a series of “day in the life” documentaries that would help viewers realize how many people suffer from some form or another of mental illness. Eventually, she settled on shorter, more intimate testimonials. “There are obviously issues about privacy,” she says. “But there are also people who want to talk about it.”

The department already had an informal speakers roster, as did the National Alliance on Mental Illness, she noted, and after a few calls, she found three current or former department clients willing to share their stories.

Myra Kanter, a nurse and patient’s rights advocate, spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression. Isaiah Hinnerichs, a client at the time in a county program for transitional-aged foster youth, talked about the mental health care that helped lift him out of homelessness. Gary Gougis, now a peer advocate at the Department of Mental Heath, talked about the panic attacks that for years had crippled his ability to function.

“At the time,” Piché says, “nobody knew how impactful they would be.”

Since then, she says, more than a dozen Profiles of Hope have been produced, featuring testimonials from people as disparate as a champion boxer, a combat veteran and a gay Vietnamese refugee. Most popular, however, have been the testimonials of celebrities talking about the ways that they’ve been helped by good mental health care.

Actress Mariette Hartley discusses her family history of suicide and alcoholism. Maurice Benard of “General Hospital” talks about managing his bipolar disorder. Robert David Hall of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” talks about how he summoned the emotional strength to rebuild his life after both his legs were amputated in the wake of a car crash.  Rock musician Springfield shares his story of overcoming depression.

In addition to the 10-minute taped interviews, which are available on Facebook, YouTube, the County Channel and the DMH web site, shorter versions are being aired as public service announcements.

The spots, which initially were paid for by the County Channel, now are underwritten by funds from the Mental Health Services Act, which taxes income over $1 million to support mental health programs.  Each testimonial costs about $13,000 to produce, says Piché, who’s been assisted by DMH Public Information Officer Karen Zarsadiaz-Ige.

But to their audiences, the spots are priceless.

“I think Profiles of Hope was so amazing,” one viewer recently wrote to the department, conveying a special thanks to Barclay for sharing the story of his battle with depression and alcohol. “Recently I recovered from a depressive episode.”

“Rick, thank you for this. THANK YOU,” another commented on Springfield’s YouTube public service announcement.

Next up, Piché hopes, will be a series of interviews with well-known people in politics, sports and public service.  Meanwhile, Araceli Esparza, who coordinates Mental Health Services Act programs for the California State University system, says the videos are under consideration as a mental health resource for trainings and workshops on the system’s 23 campuses.

“This just keeps growing,” Piché says. “But I think people are willing to do this because they know that it works.”

In rock musician Rick Springfield's video, he reveals his battles with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Posted 6/20/13

DCFS under microscope again

June 26, 2013

Supervisor Yaroslavsky, arguing against a new commission, says now is the time for action, not more recommendations. Here, he displays five years worth of board motions to examine DCFS operations.

Faced with another controversy over the failure of social workers to remove a child from a dangerous home, a divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week approved the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the Department of Children and Family Services and recommend reforms—the latest in a series of examinations stretching back decades.

The board’s action, on a 3-2 vote, follows the death last month of 8-year-old Gabriel F. of Palmdale, who was allegedly tortured by his mother and her boyfriend, both of whom are being held on murder charges. Social workers had earlier received multiple reports of abuse and neglect involving Gabriel, only the most recent child fatality to generate headlines and public outrage over the years.

The push for an independent panel came from Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich and is modeled after the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which last year recommended dozens of reforms to curb brutality by sheriff’s deputies assigned to the county lockup. Its members, who included former judges, prosecutors and a prominent pastor, were appointed by the Board of Supervisors, who’ll also pick the new panel.

During Tuesday’s meeting, all five supervisors expressed deep frustration over the tragedies that have continued to plague DCFS and have prompted numerous management shakeups and hundreds of recommended reforms from oversight bodies. But the supervisors broke ranks on how best to achieve the foremost goal of keeping youngsters safe, with Ridley-Thomas, Antonovich and Gloria Molina voting for the commission and Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe voting against it.

The proponents argued it was time for a fresh look by a group of independent, highly-respected individuals, who’d be given the authority to examine not only DCFS but other local agencies with which it interacts. The opponents, meanwhile, argued that DCFS’s director, appointed a little more than a year ago, already has made strides—including the adoption of a new strategic plan and training curriculum—and should not be distracted from the job at hand at a critical moment for the department.

Here are condensed excerpts of what each had to say, along with the edited remarks of DCFS Director Philip Browning:

Mark Ridley-Thomas

“Since 2008, there have been over 100 motions on our respective parts. Our collective effort is well documented. But when the time comes to turn our collective will into effective actions, unfortunately we have fallen short. There are times when government is unable to transcend a stagnant set of circumstances. Status quo needs to be altered. And so by establishing a blue-ribbon commission, we can finally get down to why these recommendations have not been implemented and understand what needs to be done. The commission is not intended to re-invent the wheel. Rather, the intent is to get the wheels turning and DCFS and related agencies moving forward. The blue ribbon commission will serve a very distinct role. Some have argued that we already have a children’s commission, so there’s no need for a blue ribbon commission. I would just simply say commissions can and do make governance more dynamic. They are less likely to be politicized and more inclined to be singularly focused, clinical in their pursuit and, therefore, have the opportunity to add significant value… particularly for this population that is so clearly vulnerable.”   

Zev Yaroslavsky

“There isn’t a member of this board that doesn’t care deeply about the children who are our responsibility. Nothing makes me more angry than to see a child suffer anywhere, whether it’s in L.A. County, or on my block or in any part of the world. But the question is: how do you get it done? I can almost verbatim tell you what the commission report will say: ‘You’ve got to hire a lot more social workers.’ ‘You’ve got to have more accountability and more transparency.’ All of the kinds of things we have asked our current director to do. And we need at some point to let the current director breathe and do his work under careful scrutiny and accountability by the board. I’m, as many of you know, an adherent of John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach, who had a great line, among many great lines, which is: “Don’t  mistake activity for achievement.” I think our challenge now is to execute what we know needs to be done. If we had never done this before, if there had never been a study of DCFS before, if there had not been a barrage of state audits before, had there not been a CSIU [investigative unit], then I would say a blue-ribbon commission is the way to go. But it’s ‘activity.’ And whether there’s achievement remains to be seen.”

Gloria Molina

“Very frankly, we’re not finding a solution [to child deaths]. And I wish it were just a problem in L.A. County. When you look at it across-the-board, whether you’re in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, you have the same issues: how to handle it and what we’re doing. There must be something that we’re missing. And so having a set of fresh eyes look at that is a good thing because I know I would be willing to accept a new set of recommendations. I really think that everything in that department has to change and has to change dramatically—everything from training our social workers to hiring our social workers to bringing accountability and, more importantly, to training our managers [who] in most instances can’t manage anything. But I applaud that we are moving forward in this direction. Until the blue ribbon commission concludes its review and analysis and this board acts upon its recommendations, it is the responsibility of this board…to immediately ensure this department continues to provide safety for children under their supervision.”

Don Knabe

“The minute something goes wrong, what do we do? We have another reaction to the media. We have another commission. We have another set of 99½ recommendations. Another rehash of everything we know that’s on the table. I think we’re all tired of hearing recommendations. We already know what needs to be fixed. We all want action and the greatest fear is that our department, DCFS, will come to a screeching halt because we are drowning in recommendations and losing that direction. And this blue ribbon commission would bring it to a total halt…What are they going to tell us that we don’t already know? After all the other recommendations and all of the advice that we have received over the years, what is sorely lacking is the refusal to set aside the many distractions and just get the job done. We must send a message as a board of zero tolerance of any action that exposes our children to harm. Another commission, I don’t think personally, will address those problems or set us on a path in the future. Another commission will just be a distraction to the very, very important work at hand.”

Michael D. Antonovich

“Just for the record, this motion [for a commission] does not inhibit the Department of Children and Family Services from moving forward with the implementation of their strategic plan and some of the most critical components, including the revamping of the training curriculum, policy manual rewrite and staffing reorganization. But what it does do is focus on a very serious issue and brings to a head the problem with recommendations.”

Philip Browning, director DCFS

“In my 40 years of public, private, military service, I’ve never turned down any help and I don’t intend to today. I do believe that there is some value in having a set of fresh eyes look at things. I know I learn something new every day. I do believe also that it’s critical that we have individuals [on the panel] who are knowledgeable, professional, independent, have no conflict of interest in order to really move this department forward. We’ve had some tragedies lately that are just unspeakable. We’re going through a process of investigations and hopefully we’ll get to a conclusion pretty soon. The most important thing I think I’d like to leave you with is that safety, in my opinion, is our primary goal. It’s job one for us. Frankly, most of the situations that don’t end up well don’t occur in foster homes or group homes. They occur when we’re trying to keep children in their families. And that is a very, very tough job. And it is one that they often don’t get thanked for.”

Posted 6/27/13

Dad pride

June 13, 2013

John, at right, and Duncan Ireland fostered and then adopted siblings Emma and Giovanni.

As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s dads this weekend, how’s this for a heroic (not to mention exhausting) feat of fatherhood? For three consecutive months in mid-2005, Los Angeles County social workers delivered three tiny foster children to a couple who’d once tucked away any hope of being parents.

The oldest of the children was 18 months. The middle one was 4 months. And the youngest had been in the world for just 3 days.

“We made it through that glorious summer, a scorcher without air conditioning,” says John Ireland, as he recalls the diapers and feedings and joys of it all. “It was such a tremendous, intensive parenting experience”—one made even more complicated by the demographics of the household. For there were two men of the house, “Dad” and “Daddy.” John is married to Duncan Ireland, his partner of 20 years.

Like many gay men, John, 42, says he’d come to believe the subtle and overt messages in society that parenthood was out of reach for people like him. His own parents, he says, “let go” of their hopes of having grandchildren through him after he “came out.”

But all that changed, John says, after he and Duncan talked to social workers from L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services  and the Southern California Foster Family & Adoption Agency during an informational fair at Plummer Park in West Hollywood.

“We were not only welcomed, we were actively recruited,” John says, noting that he and Duncan, 40, promptly underwent nine training sessions for certification as foster parents. That training included an emphasis on family transparency. “What they need is honesty. You don’t avoid any topics with a foster child,” says John, who was wed to Duncan in 2008, before California voters banned same-sex marriage through Proposition 8, which is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In all, the couple provided foster care to four children, eventually adopting a sister and brother, now 8 and 5, respectively. “We would have adopted them all, if we could have,” says John, a consultant and fundraiser for non-profit groups who served as the stay-at-home dad while Duncan continued his law practice. Today, John helps lead an organization called Raise A Child, which works with the county and others to spread the word about opportunities for gays and lesbians to become foster and adoptive parents.

County child welfare officials know that some people may not approve of the government actively seeking gay and lesbian parents. But those officials say the county needs every willing and qualified adult possible to provide a safe and caring environment for the more than 16,000 foster youth who must be removed from dangerous homes.

“We need to recruit everyone who can help us”—including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples and individuals—says DCFS supervising children’s social worker Bryan Miller. “The LGBT community has been an underutilized resource for many years. We’re just catching up.” Miller says a UCLA study last year concluded that foster children do equally well when placed with gay, lesbian or heterosexual parents.

As for the critics, Miller offers this challenge: “If you’re going to complain, I want to see you at our next foster/adoption orientation.”

In recent years, the county’s foster care system has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for sometimes failing to protect the welfare of children living in group or individual homes. Just this week, the Board of Supervisors voted to end a decades-long relationship with Teens Happy Homes amid allegations of financial improprieties and child abuse detailed in the Los Angeles Times. But what rarely rises to the surface are the many profound and touching stories of success. As John explains: “These victories are small and only celebrated by those of us observing them happen.”

On an East Coast swing last year, a stop at Niagara Falls.

The experiences of John and Duncan, both as foster and adoptive parents, deserve a wider celebration.

As foster parents, John says, you’re trained to brace for the reality that the children you’ve grown to love may be reunified with relatives. That’s what happened with two of those first three youngsters to enter the couple’s life in rapid succession—Marisol and her infant brother, Isaías. Five months after coming to the Ireland home, the children were adopted by an aunt living near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. “We thought we’d never see them again,” John recalls.

When he and Duncan arrived at the aunt’s apartment, siblings in tow, she asked whether they had a keepsake photograph of the children and their foster parents. In fact, John had stashed a framed picture in their suitcase. He dug it out and handed it to her. To the men’s astonishment, she removed an image of the Virgin Mary from a wall and replaced it with the new photo.

“You are part of their lives and we want you to be part of our family,” she told them, a vow to which she’s stayed true during the past eight years by inviting the couple to birthday parties and other special occasions. “That was the best thing for those children,” John says in hindsight. “It worked exactly as the foster system was meant to be.”

As for baby No. 3, Emma, the couple adopted her in late 2005, six months after she first came to their home. And she remained an only child for nearly seven years, until John got a mid-morning call while driving along Laurel Canyon Boulevard. “Pull over and turn off the car,” an excited social worker advised. Emma’s 4-year-old brother, she reported, had entered the foster care system. Little Giovanni, who joined the family as a foster child in July, 2012, was adopted last month.

“He was so excited about being adopted,” John says, “that for two weeks when he woke up in the morning he’d ask: “Am I still a foster kid?” I’d tell him, ‘Nope, you’re no longer a foster kid.”

John is under no illusions that his family choices will be widely embraced, especially by those outside “the bubble” of Los Angeles. Not only are there two dads, but they’re white with African American children. “We don’t walk into a restaurant undercover,” he joked.

Asked what unique challenges gay couples confront, John says: “The biggest challenge is helping our kids navigate a society that is very focused on us. The spotlight is trained on our families. It’s still very controversial in our culture for gays and lesbians to parent.”

“The hardest part,” he continues,”is when we go into public. The kids are old enough to see the looks or be posed the questions in school. ‘Why do you have two dads?’ We have to prepare them to answer those questions.”

Two weeks ago, he says, he and his husband took the youngsters to a gay pride festival in the Antelope Valley. Along the road to the fairgrounds were protest signs warning, “Homo sin. Turn back.”

“How do you prepare a 5-year-old or an 8-year-old for that? We tell them that people have the right to express themselves. Some people do not agree with our family. Some people do not like families with only one parent.…The truth is that every kid has something they can be picked on about. Kids need to be taught resilience.”

This Sunday, none of those questions or pressures will be in the air when John, Duncan and their two high-energy, toothy-grinned kids who love handball and running attend “The World’s Largest Gay Father’s Day Celebration,” which includes brunch and a children’s concert.

The event is sponsored by, among others, John’s Raise A Child group, the City of West Hollywood and the Pop Luck Club, an organization of gay dads, prospective dads and their families. John is the current president, with duties that include storing the club’s banners in his garage and making sure there’s plenty of Capri Sun juice boxes for monthly potlucks.

Says John: “I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world…besides my husband.”

A summer adventure: John and the kids make cupcakes this week in West Hollywood.

Posted 6/13/13

It’s a safe new world for Valley youth

May 29, 2013

Dropping in for some foosball are, from left, Edward Murillo, Karina Perez, Anthony Barros and Mario Vasquez.

Edward Murillo knows what it’s like to need a refuge.

As a gay teenager growing up in South Lake Tahoe, he says, he was kicked out of the house a dozen times. “The first time, I slept out in the woods,” he recalls.

Now 20, and living with an aunt and uncle in Sun Valley, he’s a student at Pierce College and a leader of its Gay-Straight Alliance club.

And this week, he was definitely out of the woods, sitting in a bright and freshly painted new drop-in center for at-risk, foster, homeless and LGBT young people aged 14 to 21. The center, which formally opens Friday, is the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.

“I feel like if there was a center like this in Lake Tahoe, it would have been amazing. It would have made me feel a lot better,” Murillo says.

Charles Robbins, vice president of communications and development for The Village Family Services, which has created the center on the site of a former orthopedic surgeon’s office in North Hollywood, says it will serve a growing population with urgent and specific needs.

“We are going to be a heavily-used site,” he predicts, noting a “migration” of homeless youth to the Valley as crackdowns intensify in Hollywood. “Lots of these kids are coming into North Hollywood.”

He says that many of the young people end up “couch-surfing with friends,” while others frequent local libraries, public transit stations and parks.

Some offerings at the new center are geared to addressing the needs of homeless kids—showers, a washer-dryer, a few basic clothing supplies. Others, like an outdoor patio, foosball table, free Wi-Fi and “cyber lounge” with computers, along with a steady supply of healthy breakfasts and snacks, seem likely to be hits with all the young patrons, regardless of their housing status.

Beyond the amenities, planned activities include art, fitness, vocational and life-skills classes, counseling, peer and support groups and referrals to an array of services including housing and substance abuse recovery.

The center is being started with funding from 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, with much of the annual operating expenses expected to come from private donors. It is on the first floor of the Valley Community Clinic, 6801 Coldwater Canyon Avenue in North Hollywood. That location, right downstairs from the facility’s Teen Clinic, offers a powerful combination of vital services under one roof.

“The Teen Clinic’s services are free, which is amazing,” says Karina Perez, 18, the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Pierce College and a friend of Murillo, who is the group’s public affairs officer. Onsite mental health counseling will also be available at the new drop-in center. “If you’re having anxiety or feeling depressed, they can help,” she points out.

The center features bright canvases by young artists.

Perez lives in North Hollywood, but others are expected to come from come across the sprawling Valley to find fellowship and support at the drop-in center.

“We come all the way down from Lancaster to support something like this,” says Mario Vasquez, 18. “Even youth from our area can come down and feel safe and respected in an environment where everyone is working together.”

Vasquez, Perez and Anthony  Barros, 17, are all youth advocates with Project Q, which provides supportive services for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) young people at The Village Family Services. When the organization started developing plans for the drop-in center, the students played a role in shaping its identity, including helping to paint some of the colorful canvases that now adorn the walls.

“When we first got news that we got funding for the drop-in center, I was overwhelmingly excited,” Barros says. “Finally, a safe space where LGBTQ and straight allied people can come together in the San Fernando Valley. I’m really looking at this as a place where we can all feel comfortable and supported, a place where we can continue our leadership and develop ourselves as people and citizens.”

Posted 4/18/13

Small step toward fixing a big problem

May 22, 2013

A modest infusion of new staff is coming to DCFS to help monitor foster and group homes.

The Board of Supervisors this week gave the go-ahead for an immediate staff infusion to step up oversight of foster and group homes, as the county Department of Children and Family Services works to develop longer term, comprehensive strategies to correct long-running problems in foster care monitoring.

While no one contends that the seven new positions approved Tuesday would in themselves reverse years of breakdowns and concerns, the move was seen as a concrete step in the right direction.

“This is an attempt to do something about the problem by increasing the resources, human resources, that the department has to address this in a more pro-active and thorough manner,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Under questioning by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who proposed the staffing increase as part of a broader package of reforms approved last month, DCFS director Philip Browning said the unit responsible for such monitoring had lost 15 staffers over the past decade—a drop from 51 employees to 36.

“Frankly, staff cuts do have an impact,” he told supervisors.

He said the new positions in the department’s Out-of-Home Care Investigation Section “would assist us in ensuring that state-licensed foster homes and group homes are monitored to the same level as the foster family agencies.”

Browning emphasized that the move was not a “total solution,” and noted that broader solutions are still being developed.

According to a letter to supervisors from the county’s Chief Executive Office, the staffing expansion will enable “timely and comprehensive reviews” of allegations and incidents, and will make it possible to more quickly identify patterns that require county intervention.

The board’s action came following the disclosure of long-running allegations of impropriety within Teens Happy Homes, a foster family agency under contract to the county.

Posted 5/22/13

Next Page »