L.A.’s disenfranchised kids

Nothing illustrates the immensity of the tasks facing the soon-to-be-elected Los Angeles County supervisors more than the county’s challenges in caring for abused and neglected children and in finding foster homes for those kids.

The primary election on June 3, with an expected runoff on Nov. 4, will mean a big change — and a chance for improved governance — for the five-member Board of Supervisors.

Newcomers will occupy seats for the 1st District, which stretches from central Los Angeles and East L.A. into parts of the San Gabriel Valley, and for the 3rd District, covering the Westside and a portion of the San Fernando Valley and coastal communities. Facing no opposition to speak of in the 1st District, Hilda Solis, a former U.S. labor secretary, is expected to win on June 3. But there’s intense competition for the seat in the 3rd District, and the winner probably won’t be decided until November.

None of the issues facing the candidates is more poignant than the fate of the impoverished and often brutalized children who fall into the county’s hands. As I have noted in the past, this issue has not gained much notice from the well-off, including the many Jews who live on the Westside and in the West Valley.

For the most part, county care of poor children today isn’t a Jewish issue, although in the past it has been. The history of the Los Angeles Jewish community explains why, as  I learned from Louis Josephson, president and CEO of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, which was founded in 1908 as the Jewish Orphans Home of Southern California.

There has been “a pretty small” number of Jewish children involved in Vista Del Mar’s foster-child efforts in the past few years, Josephson said. Years ago, he said, poverty and bad health were far more widespread among Jews. “You’d have a [widowed] father with five kids, and he had to work. So he brought the kids to Vista Del Mar.”

“Poverty is the No. 1 reason kids are in foster care,” he said. “The Jewish community became more affluent.”

But even as affluence increased, the obligation to care for poor children has remained part of the Jewish community’s legacy, thanks to Vista Del Mar and other Jewish social service organizations such as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, and due to the efforts on behalf of the needy by the district’s incumbent county supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, who is retiring at the end of this term, and his predecessor, Ed Edelman. Yaroslavsky and Edelman brought their concerns as Jews to the social problems of the county, even if many of their constituents didn’t need county services for the poor.

Yet, as Los Angeles Times writer Robert Greene wrote in a column on the film “The Passions and Politics of Ed Edelman”: 

“… [I]n highlighting the difficult and heroic actions that Edelman took to improve the lives of thousands of people, [the film is] a stinging reminder that some problems seem to remain exactly where they were decades ago.”

That was the message, too, of last month’s report of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which critiqued the departments of children and family services, public health, health services, mental health, the sheriff, the medical examiner and other departments that deal with endangered children.  

Formed after the deaths of children who had come under county care because of parental failure, the commission spent months digging deep into county government. Its report offers a roadmap for the new supervisors if they want change.

“No single entity in the County oversees all aspects of child protection,” the commission report said. “No single entity is held accountable for what happens to at-risk children before, during, and after they are in the county’s care. Previous attempts at reform have not been sufficient, because no single entity is charged with integrating resources across departments for the benefit of children. County departments that should work together often operate in silos,” not talking to each other. The report continues, “County entities that should collaborate in planning, funding programs, and providing services to effectively serve children fail to adequately communicate and coordinate efforts.”

In candidate forums, the candidates have struggled to condense solutions to the complex children’s issue into sound bites, but it’s tough. More detail on their positions can be found in the Los Angeles Times website’s excellent presentation of “Where They Stand.”

Solis, who has been spared debates, favors a single powerful official — a czar — to take charge of services to children whose problems largely are attributable to parental addiction, physical cruelty and criminal acts. At present, a child might be removed from a dangerous home by law enforcement, diagnosed for physical or mental ailments by other departments, then turned over to social workers who try to find foster care.   

Bobby Shriver and Pamela Conley Ulich, 3rd District candidates, also favor a single strong director with power to cut across department lines. Sheila Kuehl, another 3rd District candidate, agreed with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s main finding that each segment of the county bureaucracy operates independently, without consulting the others. She said her years as a state legislator, crafting legislation dealing with abused children, will help her shape up the bureaucracy. John Duran, also a top contender in the 3rd District race, said he would reduce social worker caseloads by turning over more cases to not-for-profit organizations that care for kids. Shriver said he would strengthen supervision of contracts with such organizations.

The idea of a “czar” is simplistic. Russia’s last one didn’t work out so well. Would anyone obey this person, or would he or she become submerged in the bureaucratic and political problems that have prevented reform?

What is needed is a hard look at county government. For even though it advocated some sort of a child welfare super chief, the Blue Ribbon Commission nailed the real problem when it said, “The greatest obstacle to reform is the county system itself.”

If the bureaucrats operate in silos, so do the five current supervisors. They have considerable power but exercise it as individuals, working independently of one another with little consultation and little cooperation among their staffs. Each supervisor has built alliances with particular county bureaucrats who may push through their individual projects. Their first allegiance might be to a helpful department head who assisted with a district problem, rather than to the county as a whole. 

With five powerful individuals in charge, currently nobody is in charge, resulting in what Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Newton called “a near-perfect accountability-free zone.”

It’s time to change the system. A good place for the new supervisors to start is with some of those who need help the most, the abused children who will be their responsibility. Unless the supervisors put aside their small-time games and get together on a reform plan, nothing will be done.