Members of a commission that concluded the county's child welfare system is "in crisis" urged the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to overhaul the system by adopting a series of recommendations, including the creation of an Office of Child Protection.
The proposed office would oversee child safety and control resources across relevant departments without adding bureaucracy, members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection told the board.
"It should act as a knife that cuts through bureaucratic layers," commission member Dr. Andrea Rich said.
Over eight months, the commission interviewed more than 300 people, reviewed 28 child deaths and evaluated hundreds of reports and previous recommendations aimed at improving the quality of lives of children in the county's care.
The commission's draft report was issued earlier this month, saying there was a "state of emergency" in the child-protection system. The panel called for a "complete rethinking about how the county ensures safe and supportive care for abused and at-risk children."
"The problem fundamentally is not a lack of good ideas or good people," commission vice chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie told the board today. "Even that road out to Gabriel Fernandez's home in Palmdale was paved with good intentions."
She was referring to an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who died after being tortured -- allegedly by his mother's boyfriend -- despite repeated reports of abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services.
The boy's highly publicized death prompted internal changes and a move by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich to establish the blue ribbon commission.
Tuesday's discussion churned up painful memories for Gabriel's grandfather, Robert Fernandez. He said the 11 months that have passed since the death of Gabriel is enough time to reform a child protection system -- a system he believes failed his family.
"Every day I get up, it hurts, and I don't want to wish that on anybody," Fernandez told NBC4.
In addition to a "fundamental transformation" of the county system under a new umbrella agency, the commission offered about 40 specific recommendations. Proposals highlighted today included a shift to focus resources on children younger than 5, those determined to be at highest risk, and to provide more support to relatives acting as caregivers.
Rich said the current leadership of the department lacked the expertise to change the system and called for a "change agent" with a "small office" to lead the charge.
At the same time, the commission encouraged greater involvement by some county departments. It urged the Board of Supervisors to give the Department of Public Health a larger role in assessing and coordinating care for at-risk children and to ask the District Attorney's Office to take a greater oversight and investigative role.
The board's reaction to the report was mixed. Ridley-Thomas hailed the findings as "a potential breakthrough moment" and said the recommendations could remove a "climate of hysteria" around child welfare.
"I don't see blame in this report, I see analysis. I see constructive critique," Ridley-Thomas said.
Supervisor Don Knabe said he was open to any ideas for protecting the county's children, but warned of possible legal challenges posed by specific reforms. Any changes would have to be made in concert with reforms now underway, he said.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said all but one of the roughly 40 recommendations had been suggested by others in some iteration, and while some proposals were "good," others were "turkeys."
Yaroslavsky said he would not support a new oversight office.
"A 20-member commission to oversee this effort is a non-starter for me," Yaroslavsky said, adding that he thought the idea "preposterous."
Supervisor Gloria Molina said she believed the board was committed to reform.
"I think we need to study it," Molina said. "I think we need to look at every single opportunity available to us to put the kind of reform in place that is really going to take hold."
The board directed the chief executive officer to review the report with DCFS and report back to the board May 20 with a fiscal and legal analysis of the proposals.
"Without support from the top and a wind to its back, any reform of this magnitude will fail," Rich told the board.