Friday, August 6, 2010

Wallowing in ignorance in L.A.

It's always been something of a mystery why those serial grandstanders on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors do an even worse job of handling child welfare than their counterparts in most of the rest of the country. Did I say most? Actually, I've never seen a political governing body do worse.

Today, I discovered one possible reason: Maybe it has something to do with poor choices when hiring staff.

Certainly it would be hard to do worse than to listen to Wendy Ramallo, a former senior legislative deputy to Supervisor Gloria Molina. She wrote an op ed column in the Los Angeles Times called "How to fix L.A. County's broken child welfare system." A better title would be "How to make sure L.A. County's broken child welfare system never, ever gets better."

The column is a collection of all the usual family-bashing demagoguery that has characterized the politics of Los Angeles County child welfare for decades. Keeping families together is scapegoated for every recent high-profile tragedy (except, of course, the recent death in foster care, which Ramallo simply leaves off her list). And Ramallo says that Los Angeles County, already in the midst of a foster-care panic and taking children at a higher rate than most big metropolitan areas, should be consigning even more children to the chaos of foster care.

So it's no surprise that almost every one of the "solutions" Ramallo has tried has been tried elsewhere – and failed.

But the giveaway that Ramallo doesn't know what she's talking about is the places she points to as models. She writes that "Colorado, Massachusetts and New York have instituted excellent reforms in child protection, placement, adoption and coordination with juvenile justice systems." Notice, she doesn't say that the reforms actually have made children safer, just that they're "excellent."

And no wonder.

Colorado's system, which, like California's, is county run, is in chaos. The state is on its second "blue ribbon commission" in three years – and week after week the headlines there are exactly like the headlines in Los Angeles County. Things are so bad that there have been serious, widespread calls for the state to simply take over the entire system. This is your idea of reform, Ms. Ramallo?

As for Massachusetts, that state just got sued by the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" – and while CR's solutions tend to be as bad as Ramallo's, they're usually pretty good at picking for their targets systems that really stink.

New York City – I assume she means New York City, since again, counties and the city run their own systems in New York State - really did improve for awhile – but they did it by reducing, not increasing, the number of children torn from their families. When they caved in to media pressure for foster care panic, just like L.A., they lost ground. The data are all in our report on New York City child welfare. Even now, though, New York City tears apart families at a rate 30 percent below the rate in Los Angeles County.

As for Ms. Ramallo's specific solutions (aside from her all-purpose answer: take the child and run), here's what she suggests, and why the ideas won't work.

Let the county sheriff do the investigations. A few places around the country have tried it, most notably in a few counties in Florida, back when the take-the-child-and-run crowd ran child welfare there. The premise was that hard-nosed cops would tear apart families more willingly than those bleeding heart caseworkers. In fact, the caseworkers already were tearing apart families so readily that the change made no real difference. One high-level law enforcement official told me he was sick and tired of harassing families because he had to investigate every report passed on from the state hotline, no matter how obviously ridiculous. In contrast, he said, in criminal cases his department actually had more discretion.

Yes, there are some places, like Clark County, Nevada, where turning over investigations to law enforcement would do enormous harm to children, but mostly, it's not likely to make things any better, or any worse. So, when it comes to transferring investigations to the sheriff, in the words of that icon of law enforcement, Dirty Harry: "Go ahead, make my day."

Independent investigations of serious child abuse injuries and deaths. This is the kind of phony accountability states and localities opt for to avoid the real thing. There is no evidence that states and localities that have such mechanisms, be they review teams, "ombudsmen" or whatever have safer children than communities that don't. Why is Ramallo afraid of real accountability: opening all court hearings and almost every record to press and public in every case? Could it be because then it would be harder for pols like her former boss to spin the findings?

Recruit more foster parents. It must have taken a lot of creativity and brainstorming to think of that one. But you can't recruit your way out of a foster-care panic. As long as every caseworker is terrified of winding up on the front page of the Times – or in the line of fire of a politician – entries into care will continue to soar, just as they are now in Los Angeles County. And, of course, Ramallo thinks the panic hasn't gone far enough. The supply of foster parents will never match that kind of artificial demand.

Better coordination between DCFS and the juvenile probation department. No problem there. But have you heard of anyone advocating worse coordination?

Ramallo concludes by saying: "Let's stop proclaiming our outrage when a child dies in the county's care. It's time to turn outrage into real reform." Good point. But it can't happen until people like Ramallo and her former boss get out of the way and let real reformers go to work.