Los Angeles County's child welfare director laid out his plan for improving child safety today while awaiting recommendations from citizens commission set up to suggest reforms.
Safety is just one of three department objectives, including permanence and access to services, but a clear priority given highly publicized child deaths.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection was established to come up with reforms to prevent abuses such as the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy in May who allegedly was tortured by his mother and her boyfriend.
The Department of Children and Family Services is shaped by a bias toward keeping children and families together, and the number of children in foster care has fallen dramatically over the past 10-15 years, Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning said.
The department responds to about 15,000 calls each month reporting possible abuse. While about 93 percent of those children are allowed to stay in their homes after social workers investigate, that means that more than 900 children are still removed from their homes each month.
County child welfare workers fight detractors on both sides: parents who say their children have been taken from them without cause and activists who highlight the department's tragic failures to protect children from abusive parents.
Keeping children from their parents requires a court order, and judges affirm social workers' decisions in the vast majority of cases, approving 90 percent of the department's requests, according to Browning.
That leaves DCFS supervising the care of than 17,000 children in foster or group homes and struggling to find new foster parents.
"New staff are critical," Browning said.
In addition to hiring to reduce caseloads, training has been revamped to give social workers the tools to make the right decision about whether to keep a family together or pull a child out for his or her own protection.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky asked Browning about child deaths.
"Do you know what the child death rate has been in our jurisdiction?" Yaroslavsky asked.
"It's really come down over the last two or three years," Browning said, without offering a specific number. "Most of the fatalities occur ... when we're trying to reunite the child with their family."
The department tracks detailed statistics, but agreeing on what constitutes a death for which DCFS should be held responsible is another matter, said a department spokesman.
For example, three children have died at the hands of a foster caregiver or a caregiver's boyfriend during the last six and a half years, with the last tragedy occurring in 2010.
"Homes that we place children in are, by and large, the safest place for them to be," spokesman Armand Montiel said.
Montiel had no specifics about how many children died in their own homes while their families were the subject of an open DCFS investigation -- such as the Palmdale boy who died in May. In that case, the department made the decision to fire two social workers and two supervisors.
But Montiel said he expected the number to be dramatically lower than those reflected in news reports. He said most new stories about counted the deaths of all juveniles who came into contact with DCFS at least once in their lifetime.
Whatever the numbers, Browning has been instituting reforms to better protect children, completely reorganizing the department as of March.
Policies that workers said were duplicative and caused them to spend more time at their desk and less in the field have been condensed and revised.
Three new social worker "academies" have started since August and training has been increased to 52 weeks from seven weeks. The preparation includes training in interviewing parents, identifying drug abuse and emergency response.
Looking for signs that someone else is living in or visiting the home and needs to be background checked is one critical element in preventing abuse, Browning has said. Home visits are now simulated during training to highlight such clues, like cigarettes in the ashtray of a bedroom where the mother doesn't smoke.
Supervisor Don Knabe voiced his support for all Browning had done. He said he hoped the blue ribbon commission charged with a review of the county child welfare system would finish up by year end and work collaboratively with Browning.
"I hope that whatever the Blue Ribbon Commission comes up with ... (they do) not attempt to reinvent the wheel," Knabe said.
Browning said he had not spoken with commission members but looked forward to that opportunity.