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Setbacks delay search for LA County’s Foster Care Czar

Supervisor-elect Hilda Solis attends an election party for newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2014 at the JW Marriott at LA Live.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Supervisor Hilda Solis

The national search for someone to lead foster care and child protection reform in Los Angeles is starting over.

Last week, during a closed-door meeting, the Board of Supervisors quietly ended its contract with Oppenheim Associates, a headhunting firm hired in August to find candidates for the new position.

“We did not have the quality of people being recommended that we ought to have had,” said Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Mark Oppenheim, who was leading the search, defended his work. “These candidates are professionals viewed as being at the top of their respective fields,” he said in a statement. “However, whether any is suited to advance the purpose of the Board is really a question for the Supervisors."

The list of candidates Oppenheim found was not released. The decision to change headhunters came as two new supervisors joined the board: Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl. And that may have been one reason the board changed course.

“I'd rather do it in a more deliberate, well thought out manner rather than just rushing to do what the previous board wanted to do,” said Solis.

In April, a Blue Ribbon Commission said L.A. County’s child welfare system was in “a state of emergency,” with numerous cases of child abuse and neglect that could have been prevented. In one high profile case, an 8-year-old boy was allegedly beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend after social workers visited the home.

At any given time, the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services and other agencies are caring for or monitoring 26,000 kids.

The panel recommended creating a county Director of Child Protection to coordinate the numerous agencies that come in contact with neglected children and their families, including law enforcement, mental health workers and the Department of Public Social Services.

“The blue ribbon commission had it absolutely right,” said Jacquelyn McCroskey, Professor of Child Welfare at USC. “There needs to be a position with an absolute laser focus on the well-being of children and the safety of children.”

One key question is how much authority to give the new position. Antonovich cited this as another reason the board decided to change headhunters.

“The position was being sold as having more authority than it was really going to have,” he said. Oppenheim said county officials decided on the job description, not him.

Solis suggested any new job description should provide the child welfare director more authority, not less. McCroskey said the current description was unclear because of conflicting views on the board.

“It wasn’t clear what it is that the primary responsibility would be,” she said. “Are you there to coordinate different agencies ? Or are you there to direct other agencies?”

Solis said the board’s decision to hire a new headhunter and re-write the job description reflects a new day at the county Hall of Administration – especially as it relates to her and fellow newcomer Kuehl.

“We’re not just going to sit by and keep with the status quo or listen to the naysayers who say 'oh, you don’t know enough about this,' ” Solis told KPCC. “We are taking a new refreshing look at it, a new bite at the apple.”

It's important the board act with consensus if the critically needed reform efforts in child protection are to succeed, said Antonovich.

"We want to do this as a unanimous, united effort."