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Newton: Failing our children, in and out of court

Over the years, Judge Michael Nash, who supervises the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, has been tough and persistent. Bucking a long-standing tradition of secrecy, he opened courtrooms in Dependency Court, where the futures of young people in foster care are decided, and he waited out the uproar that ensued without wavering. He regularly confronts some of society's most dispiriting failures and yet he's remained a tireless — and generally upbeat — advocate for children.

Last week, though, I found him in an uncharacteristically glum mood.

"I feel as crappy about things as I have in a long time," he said, from behind the mountain of documents that covers his desk. "It's just very difficult to do the job in a meaningful way."

The source of Nash's discontent is the swelling caseload that his judges are being asked to carry — a burden that reduces the amount of time they have to focus on the needs of the children whose futures they decide. As of today, he said, each of the court's 20 full-time judges handles roughly 1,350 cases at any given time, well above the recommended maximum. Often, matters of grave consequence must be heard and decided in minutes, even when they call for careful deliberation.

A typical day's calendar for a Dependency Court judge might include deciding how much and what type of medication to authorize for a child; whether to remove children from homes after allegations of neglect or abuse; and whether to place them in the hands of strangers or relatives, or return them to shaky parents.

What especially infuriates Nash is that budget cuts are only part of the problem. In his view, too many social workers at the county's Department of Children and Family Services are failing to exercise smart judgment about when to leave children with their parents and when to remove them from their homes. Instead, he says, often out of fear of being second-guessed, social workers remove children, disrupting young lives and burdening the courts.

That enrages Nash. Social workers who remove children to protect themselves from criticism, he said, are guilty of "following up bad social work with more bad social work…. That is unacceptable."

He's complained to Philip Browning, director of the county agency, and Browning has produced a new strategic plan. But Nash derided the plan as "a checklist" and said Browning is merely "moving people around."

Browning, not surprisingly, doesn't see it that way. He notes that while the absolute number of children removed from their homes is up a bit this year, the percentage in comparison with the number of referrals to his agency has remained relatively steady at about 7%. He does acknowledge that some social workers feel second-guessed, especially by the media, but he emphasized that the social workers in his department are instructed to use their judgment and to protect children.

"We don't want to detain any child that we shouldn't," he said, "but we do want to detain any child that we should."

One area where Browning and Nash agree is that the department needs to do a better job training its employees, especially those who respond to complaints of abuse. A recent audit found "a general lack of skill on the part of ER [emergency response] workers" and called on the department to improve its systems for hiring and training those employees.

The report cited example after example of social workers who failed to ask basic questions or conduct even rudimentary investigations. One social worker spent weeks looking for a little boy at the wrong address because the worker neglected to contact law enforcement. In another, the worker failed to interview a sibling who had reported the abuse. The result: two children died.

Browning conceded that the department "hasn't done a very good job" in that area, and Nash couldn't agree more: "People need to know how to assess safety and risk.… It comes down to training, and it comes down to supervision."

Browning's agency has been buffeted severely for a long time. Whenever a child in its care dies, there are calls for action — almost always well-intentioned but often driven more by anger than analysis. The county supervisors lurch into action, and the agency hustles to respond. That makes it hard to craft a plan and stick to it, and it can try the patience of anyone who deals with it for long enough.

Certainly, it's discouraged Nash. Near the end of our conversation the other day, I asked whether he saw anything on the horizon that would make the work of his court easier and improve the lives of the children in its care.

His answer: "No."

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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