There have been Los Angeles County institutions in need of management changes and policy overhauls, and there have been county institutions so saturated with a culture of ineptitude or defiance that they hurt the very people they were tasked with helping. In extreme cases, there has been little choice but to shut down the institution and try to start over.
Such was the case with MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte, which was supposed to serve children who could not immediately be placed with foster families but which became a frightening place where mentally ill and abused youths were crowded and left for months with inadequate treatment and attention. And such was the case with Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center in Willowbrook, where repeated policy shifts, management changes and vows to do better came to nothing, leaving a hospital infected by callous and defensive staff.
There have been many changes to policy and management at the Department of Children and Family Services, including the drafting by county supervisors of Philip L. Browning to revamp the agency. Browning has identified problems with the department's culture and has laid out a strategic plan for dealing with them. He may be just what the department needs. Or a culture of resistance may be so entrenched that it thwarts Browning's efforts. How can the public and the county supervisors know whether DCFS is on the reform track or if its problems are intractable?
It's that question that a commission — of the type proposed and before the supervisors for a Tuesday vote — can answer.
The timing is right. Browning is still new at the agency and thus should be able to serve as the commission's guide through the problems he has encountered without fear of becoming a target or scapegoat. And although the additional scrutiny wouldn't necessarily be welcomed at first, coming in the wake of countless disruptive and perhaps only marginally productive policy changes, the commission could offer the supervisors and the public the confidence they need that the department is on the right track, if indeed that is what it found.
But the motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich correctly seeks to extend the commission's purview to institutions — to county culture — that affect child safety well outside the confines of DCFS. That's appropriate and suggests important questions regarding how the county operates. For example, why can't county agencies even get agreement on child death statistics or reporting criteria? Why do so many agencies trip over one another? Why is management so unstable? And what can be done about it?
The supervisors would be wise to appoint a commission to answer these questions. Once they do, the supervisors then need to take on the harder task: staying out of the panel's way while it does its work.
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.