Monday, December 13, 2010

Step one for new LA DCFS leader: Learn from Florida

In a move that shocked absolutely no one, Trish Ploehn has been removed from her job running the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.  It was the right move.

A spokesman for the County Administrator says that Deputy County Administrator Antonia Jimenez, will be interim director until a permanent replacement can be chosen.  That may take awhile, given the difficulty of finding the right person for the job: someone who is a superb administrator, a visionary leader  - and actually wants the job.

In the meantime, Jimenez should learn from another huge child welfare system that brought in new leadership in a time of crisis: The State of Florida.

When Gov. Charlie Crist took office, almost exactly four years ago, Florida was the national symbol of child welfare failure.  The new Republican governor brought in one of the state’s leading Democrats, former attorney general Bob Butterworth, to run the state Department of Children and Families.  Butterworth’s first move set the stage for everything that would follow:

He pulled Florida DCF out of the bunker.

No more stonewalling.  No more no comment.  No more going to court to oppose release of documents whenever a case would make DCF look bad -  on the contrary, Butterworth sent his lawyers in to side with reporters seeking those documents.

And every ambiguity in law, rule and policy was interpreted in favor of openness.

That did not fix the problems in the child welfare system.  But it bought Butterworth and his exceptional leadership team time and instilled the trust he needed to start fixing those problems.  One member of that team, George Sheldon, succeeded Butterworth and built upon his change in direction.

As it happens, one of Ploehn’s last acts is a good start in that direction.  According to the excellent Blog WitnessLA, DCFS now supports asking the California Legislature to open court hearings in cases alleging abuse and neglect to the press and the public.  So does County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas who is urging the Board of Supervisors to include this in its list of requests of the Legislature.  And so do the current and former foster youth who write for LA Youth – the very young people advocates of secret hearings say they are “protecting” by keeping the press and the public out.

Although WitnessLA reported this on December 7, I haven’t been able to find a word about this in the Los Angeles Times.  Presumably this is because Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times, doesn’t really want openness, since he can write many more stories by bashing DCFS for the lack of it.  And, presumably, this is because if courts are open, better reporters will be able to see how DCFS errs in all directions – so Therolf won’t be able to impose his selective vision of DCFS mistakes on the public.

Of course, I don’t actually know that.  But pursuant to the journalistic standard set by Therolf’s editor, David Lauter, I don’t actually have to know – all I have to do is “presume.”

Jimenez also could learn from step two in Florida, which was to reverse the-take-the-child-and-run mentality that had dominated Florida DCF since 1999.  Butterworth and his leadership team understood that family preservation and child safety are not opposites that need to be “balanced” – rather, having seen the disaster wrought by the take-the-child-and-run approach, Butterworth and his team knew that Florida couldn’t have child safety without family preservation.

And they had the resources they needed to change direction – thanks to the same kind of waiver from federal funding restrictions that Therolf has been trashing in L.A.  Florida’s success with the same kind of waiver is well documented by The New York Times, and by independent evaluations showing that child safety improved.

So for Jimenez, step two needs to be to send a loud, clear message to the frontlines at DCFS.  She needs to send the message that Garrett Therolf will not be allowed to dictate child welfare policy in Los Angeles County.  His agenda of using fear and smear to stampede workers into tearing apart ever more families will not become the agenda at DCFS.

In short, she needs to send a message that the days of foster care panic in Los Angeles County are over.