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Editorial

Healing L.A.'s child welfare system

A new blue-ribbon commission must recognize that the issues go well beyond any single department.

By The Times editorial board

August 1, 2013

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A blue-ribbon commission on child protection, set to meet Thursday for the first time, was formed in response to the death earlier this year of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale after county Department of Children and Family Services workers missed or ignored warning signs and complaints that the boy was being regularly and severely abused. This week, county officials announced that they had taken steps to fire four workers involved in the Palmdale boy's case, and that others had received warning or reprimand letters. So the closure, or rather the hint of it, in that particular case may move some to now see the blue-ribbon commission's task as superfluous. Others may want to panel to focus on whether discipline in the Fernandez case should move further up the chain of command.

Either approach would be a serious mistake.

The commission's task is not, and should not be, to evaluate Children and Family Services General Manager Philip L. Browning, the changes he has wrought at the department since he was asked to move over from another county agency or his unusually quick — and public — action in firing the workers involved in the Palmdale tragedy. Browning may well be, finally, the right person for an exceedingly difficult job. After examining the many problems in child welfare training, hiring, deployment and management, he said he would need three years at the helm to get the department on the right track, and that timeline is not unreasonable. The commission will be adding little of value if it spends its days second-guessing him, or if it becomes just one more in a series of probes into what went wrong in any given case, or one more review of whether the county removes too many children from their families or leaves too many in place.

The commission, to be successful, must recognize that the issue of child welfare in Los Angeles County goes well beyond any single department and encompasses an entire system of funding, management, oversight and service. It involves the relationship among the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney, law enforcement agencies and the many advisory panels whose purview includes child welfare. It includes the civil service system and the Juvenile Court.

If it were simply a matter of getting the right person in the top job at DCFS, why did it take the Board of Supervisors so many years, and so many wrong choices, to get it right? What is the prospect of the county's child welfare function floundering again when Browning leaves? How could that be prevented? What is it about county culture that allows so many reports on improving child welfare gather dust on shelves, and why have so many board directives on process and procedure been ignored with impunity? Those are among the questions the panel should ask. And, with diligence and luck, answer.