Sunday, August 16, 2009

Curbing The B.S. in L.A.

Which is the worst governing body in all of America when it comes to child welfare? Of all the governors, mayors, legislatures, and councils responsible for overseeing state or local child welfare systems, which has the worst track record for putting politics ahead of what's best for vulnerable children? There are lots of candidates.

No list would be complete without Washington D.C., of course, where Mayor Adrian Fenty's Queen of Hearts school of management blew down the house of cards that was D.C.'s slowly improving child welfare system and sent it right back into chaos. (For details just search this Blog for "Fenty" – he'd probably like that.)

But there's actually worse out there. Imagine Fenty times three. Imagine the child welfare agency derailed every time it gets on track because of endless demands to respond to whatever was on the front page that day. Imagine never-ending posturing, preening, pontificating pandering and micromanaging every time a high-profile case is in the news. And imagine it's been going on for more than 15 years.

No need to imagine, actually. Meet the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors: or, as they should properly be called, "The B.S."

The B.S. is one of the main reasons there is almost certainly a foster-care panic underway in Los Angeles right now. Later this week I'll be in Los Angeles for meetings with journalists and a news conference with local advocates and families, in the hope of helping to curb that panic.

But that won't be easy, given the behavior of three of the Board members.

There are five Board members in all. But Mark Ridley-Thomas was only elected for the first time last year, so he can't be held responsible for the behavior of his colleagues. The chairman, Don Knabe, is more of an enabler – he doesn't join in the ritual denunciations of the county Department of Children and Family Services, but he does nothing to stop them.

That leaves Michael Antonovich, Gloria Molina, and Don Yaroslavsky. And, to paraphrase a line originally used about at least two U.S. Senators, the most dangerous place in Los Angeles is between any of those three and a television camera.

Now, they're at it again. They are busy blasting, denouncing, and professing their shock and outrage. There are the usual calls for a full investigation. But why wait for an investigation to draw conclusions?

"I can't believe we have social workers overseeing these cases and then allowing these children to be murdered," said Antonovich – as though he'd just discovered the problem of deaths of children "known to the system" even though he's been on The B.S. since 1980.

Yaroslavaky, apparently having confused two sets of numbers, is blaming the latest tragedies in Los Angeles on efforts to keep children out of foster care. But in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year in L.A. was up 23 percent from 2003.

Molina promised that investigations are underway and added: "There are heads that will roll." (Clearly, Supervisor Molina is a believer in the "give 'em a fair trial, then hang 'em" approach to governance.) Molina also declared that "Anytime a child dies on our watch, we pay attention." The unspoken corollary is: But fail a child any other way and we'll ignore it, so you're free to practice take-the-child-and-run social work all you want.

Nor is there much evidence that paying attention, L.A. Supervisor style, has done children any good. Among them, Antonovich, Molina and Yaroslavsky have 62 years of time spent on the Board. So, if L.A. County child welfare is still a mess, they are far more responsible than the latest frontline caseworker to be caught in the crossfire or even the latest in a long line of DCFS directors.

There was one, brief period, where the Board behaved itself. Somehow, when he was Director of the Department of Children and Family Services, David Sanders managed to rein in the Board's worst instincts. (A lot of people all over the country would love to know how he did it.) But his successor, Trish Ploehn has been easily buffeted about by the non-stop grandstanding of The B.S.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that people in Los Angeles probably think this kind of behavior is normal – after all, they're politicians, right? Certainly some degree of grandstanding is commonplace in these situations. But Los Angeles County is simply in a class by itself.

In New York City, for example, after Nixzmary Brown died, Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed commendable restraint, and only one of 51 members of the City Council behaved like an L.A. Supervisor.

None of this is any secret in child welfare circles. Mention the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at gatherings of child welfare professionals and they're likely to just roll their eyes, and thank their lucky stars they don't work in Los Angeles County.

But there are signs that, at long last, patience may be wearing thin. After the Los Angeles Times reported that about the same number of children "known to the system" died in 2008 as in each of the two previous years, the obligatory follow-up story was a little different from usual. This was the lead:

One county supervisor expressed shock, another fired off a press release demanding an investigation. But Monday's revelations that 14 children died last year as the result of abuse or neglect despite being under the watch of child welfare authorities should have come as no surprise to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. … Indeed, the supervisors were notified every time a child who had at least one prior contact with Family Services died. Case after case landed on their desks. …"

Yaroslavsky even is quoted at a meeting of The B.S. acknowledging as much. But soon it was back to business as usual.

And what is business as usual? In 1954, Sen. Ralph Flanders of Vermont denounced his notorious colleague Joe McCarthy in words that need be changed only slightly to explain the modus operandi of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in child welfare cases. To paraphrase Flanders:

They don their war paint; they go into their war dance; they emit their war whoops; they go forth to battle -- and proudly return with the scalp of a social worker.