Top Story: Social Services
August 8, 2013
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.”
July 25, 2013
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.
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.”
July 9, 2013
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.
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.”
June 26, 2013
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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
June 13, 2013
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.”
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.”
May 29, 2013
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.
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.”
May 22, 2013
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.
May 1, 2013
Responding to a years-long string of allegations of impropriety within a foster family agency under contract to Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors this week moved to tighten oversight of such agencies and to fix communications breakdowns involving departments responsible for auditing them.
The board voted unanimously to approve a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas calling on the Department of Children and Family Services to develop a plan to conduct annual audits of programs at the approximately 129 foster family agencies with county contracts. The board also approved an amendment by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky directing the department to include a staffing component it had previously proposed, for six or seven new employees to enable DCFS to undertake a more aggressive oversight approach.
Meanwhile, the county department of the Auditor-Controller, charged with conducting separate financial audits of the foster family agencies, came in for some criticism at the board’s meeting on Tuesday for its handling of a review of Teens Happy Home, the subject of a recent Los Angeles Times article that disclosed allegations of long-running financial irregularities at the agency.
Yaroslavsky said the department, which completed an audit of Teens Happy Home in 2003 and is currently finishing up a second audit started in 2010, failed to brief board staff when it discovered allegations of misappropriation of public funds by the agency.
“Where there are problem agencies out there…we’d like to know so that we don’t step in a pile of dung inadvertently,” Yaroslavsky said. “This is troubling to me.”
Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe, who said the Teens Happy Home audit is nearly complete, acknowledged the problem: “We fell short on this one, I’ll admit to that. We did not do a very good job. And I think part of the reason is we wanted to keep the 20 allegations under wraps.”
The Times reported that Teens Happy Home, a private agency that places children in foster and group homes, has continued to receive county contracts even as “questionable financial practices proliferated in recent years” and children it placed in foster homes “suffered abuse and neglect repeatedly.”
Supervisors expressed concern that DCFS and the Auditor-Controller are not communicating well enough with each other—especially when issues of child welfare are concerned.
“There are things that the Auditor-Controller knows that the Department of Children and Family Services does not know and vice versa,” Ridley-Thomas said. “And because of the lack of communication and coordination, we are not holding the entities appropriately accountable.”
Added Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich: “The children can’t afford delays in having these corrections implemented…If a house is on fire, you can’t take two years to study it and make a recommendation in three years on how to put out the fire…This is a life-and-death issue at times that has to be resolved immediately.”
The supervisors directed staff to come back with an oversight plan in 30 days. Philip Browning, the head of DCFS, said his department is committed to making the necessary changes.
“We put safety as a priority for the children in these foster homes,” Browning said in a statement after the supervisors’ meeting. “We will be working more closely with the Auditor-Controller to ensure coordination of our efforts to improve safety of children at the direction of the board.”
January 31, 2013
Even as a little girl, Ruth Wong aspired to the Right Stuff.
“I knew at 8 years old that I wanted to be a nurse, and I was probably 12 when I started thinking about the military,” she remembers.
By the age of 20, she was in the U.S. Air Force, studying to become a flight nurse. By 40, she was in the Persian Gulf, commanding 50 medical personnel, sleeping in a chemical suit and packing a 9-millimeter sidearm.
By the time she retired from the service in 2001 and went to work for Los Angeles County, she was a Brigadier General.
So last week, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat, Wong—who last month became the first woman to head the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs—cheered it as a step in the right direction for the institution that had helped her realize her heart’s desires.
“They’ll have to be physically able, emotionally strong, and be able to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts,” she says. “But this is going to afford an opportunity for women to advance in career fields they may have dreamed about for a very long time.”
Wong, who moved to the military and veterans affairs department in August after nearly a decade as executive director of the county’s Quality and Productivity Commission, says she sometimes thinks that her whole life has been leading her toward her current job.
“When I came here, I was told it would be a temporary assignment,” says Wong, who became acting director after the retirement of Col. Joseph N. Smith in December. “But after a couple of months, I began to think, ‘This is where I belong.’”
The department, which helps L.A. County veterans access housing, education, mental health care and other services, offers a front-line view of the military’s evolution and of veterans’ evolving needs. A 2010 study by the Economic Round Table counted 328,000 veterans in Los Angeles County, including some 36,000 who had served since 9/11. That total, Wong says, has since grown to an estimated 400,000, and is projected to grow further by 2017 as forces in Afghanistan and Iraq complete planned drawdowns.
“About a third of the young people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from post-traumatic stress or some other mental health issue,” Wong says. “Those who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress are having to adapt to a new environment.”
And, Wong says, the new veterans are twice as likely to be female; 13% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are women, compared to 6% of veterans overall, according to the Economic Round Table. The ban on women in combat notwithstanding, she says, the female veterans now have seen more action than at any time in U.S. history, and are coming home with not only that trauma, but with a whole set of needs specific to women.
“Some are coming back as primary caretakers to families and children, or maybe to a husband they have to bond with again,” she says. “We are seeing women who, unfortunately, are getting divorced, with young children, and have no job and don’t know where to go.”
Wong understands these struggles, both as a married woman and as a veteran who has watched the military evolve since the early 1970s. When she WAS commissioned as an Air Force officer, fresh out of nursing school in Chicago, the Vietnam War and the draft were winding down and the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. Women made up less than 2% of the armed forces and were barred from two-thirds of the military job specialties.
“I wasn’t a feminist,” she says, recalling that her main motivation had been to travel without having to postpone her career in nursing. In fact, when her World War II-veteran father feared aloud for her safety, “my response was, ‘I’m going to be a nurse in a hospital—I probably won’t even carry a gun.’”
She met her husband, a Pasadena physician, while they were both stationed at a New Mexico air base. She served at Point Hueneme while he built a Southern California practice. Then, in 1991, war struck. Wong was promoted to flight commander of Aeromedical Evacuation Operations at the Sharjah Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. Though Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield never brought her directly into combat, she says, she was responsible for scores of subordinates and there were frequent threats of chemical attack from SCUD missiles.
The experience shaped her in ways she recognizes in the veterans she serves now.
“I was stronger when I came back,” she says. “Just being in a country that was so different, in a wartime scenario, working with people I’d never worked with before—just being able to survive all that gave me a feeling of, ‘I can do almost anything. I’m a little bit more of a superwoman than I thought I was.”
It also sensitized her to veterans’ struggles. “They’ve faced so many things that others haven’t had to experience or face,” she says. “Things in their hometowns are different. They’re different. When I came back from the Persian Gulf, I was different.”
And, she says, so were her loved ones. “My husband is a jovial person, and when I came back, people told me over and over, ‘Your husband didn’t smile the whole time you were gone.’”
The 6-month deployment moved Wong up the ladder; her final decade in the military was spent directing and administering nursing services for the Air Force at Andrews AFB and in the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C.
She retired just before 9/11 and returned fulltime to Pasadena, where she and her husband had based their temporarily bicoastal marriage. Then the military changed her life again.
This time, it was a phone call from an old Air Force buddy, wondering if she would be interested in an opening at Los Angeles County, where the friend now worked. Soon, Wong, who had spent six years consulting with nurses to make Air Force field units more efficient, was evaluating efficiency at the county Department of Mental Health.
That gig led to the job as executive director at the Quality and Productivity Commission, and, in turn, to her current job—proving, she says, that with or without combat experience, military service can be valuable in the civilian workplace.
As can Air Force buddies. “As they say, 66% percent of all jobs are gotten through networking,” she says with a laugh.