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LA County leaders disagree on how to proceed with foster care reform

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas pushed for a blue ribbon commission to examine L.A. County's child welfare system. Now, the question is what'll come of the group's recommendations for reform.
Andres Aguila/KPCC
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas pushed for a blue ribbon commission to examine L.A. County's child welfare system. Now, the question is what'll come of the group's recommendations for reform.

A blue ribbon commission report on the ills of L.A. County's foster care system received a mixed reception at the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, as members signaled widely different views on a path towards reform.

But all of the supervisors agreed to study it further before taking action on the recommended reforms.

The commission was convened last year after the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who had repeatedly come to the attention of child welfare workers, but had been left in a home with his mother and her boyfriend, who are accused of abusing him. The two face murder charges in his death.

Related: Report: LA County must reform troubled DCFS; officials say the whole system needs reform (update)

Fernandez's death also resulted in firings at the Department of Children and Family Services, and a flood of attention – much of it criticism – on the nation's largest child welfare system.

Over a year later, it's unclear what will come of outrage that followed his death. 

Citing years of reforms, reports, and even court cases aimed at overhauling the Department of Children and Family Services, commissioner Leslie Gilbert-Lurie told the board that the county needs an oversight team to make sure the reform proposals don’t gather dust on the shelves in the county building.

"Recommendations will come and go," Gilbert-Lurie said. "As we can all now recite in our sleep, there have been hundreds of them. The problem fundamentally is not a lack of good ideas or of good people."

An oversight panel is the reform several commissioners called the most important. It's also the most controversial among county leaders.

The panel has also suggested creating an Office of Child Protection to coordinate amongst the numerous agencies (DCFS, law enforcement, District Attorney, Department of Health) that touch on child welfare going forward.

“A solid structure that takes in good ideas, assesses them, funds them, implements them, and holds people accountable for better results than in the past will lead to sustainable change,” Gilbert-Lurie said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who voted against creating the blue ribbon panel in the first place, called the idea a "turkey."

"What this issue needs is not more bureaucracy and more commissions, it needs results," Yaroslavsky said.

The supervisor said moving resources from one under-funded department to a brand new one is hardly a solution. 

"It's a non-starter with me," he said, though he said many of the ideas contained in the report were worth pursuing and more practical.

Board President Don Knabe has also expressed skepticism that more county agencies and commissions is that way to go.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who pushed for the blue ribbon panel, said he's "undeterred."

"We have to have a more thorough analysis of (the report)," Ridley-Thomas said. 

Supervisor Gloria Molina said no issue is a non-starter for her.

“There’s a lot of self-defense and protectiveness of the status quo,” Molina said. “I welcome any ideas to reform the system and make it better.”

Concerning the possibility of more oversight commissions and departments, Molina said she has to hear more.

“I would like to see how it would be more pointed and direct,” she said.

In all the agencies that deal with foster children: “there isn’t one person that’s in charge of that child,” Molina said. “We need to have a person who’s making sure that all those services are received by that child.”

The Board asked the county counsel and the county’s chief executive office to review the recommendations and report back on their legal and financial feasibility. That analysis is expected to be presented at the board’s meeting on May 20.