(The writer is the founder of Fostering Media Connections, the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change and a lecturer at USC Price School of Public Policy.)
For more than a year, Los Angeles County, home to the world's largest child-protection system — protecting kids from physical and sexual abuse, and neglect, by their parents, neighbors and friends — has grappled with how to better watch over and help endangered children.
Last year, after little Gabriel Fernandez was allegedly tortured to death by his own family, county leaders launched a reform effort that – if executed thoroughly – could be a nationwide model. L.A.’s hopes are tied to creating an Office of Child Protection that would act as a bully pulpit to impel county agencies to better identify children living in risky situations, then act to protect them. Now, L.A. County needs to hire the right bully to make that happen:
Rumors had been swirling that retiring Judge Michael Nash — an outspoken reformer who opened the secretive and closed-door Child Dependency Courts to media coverage and has served as presiding judge of the sprawling juvenile court for more than 15 years — was a top contender to lead the nascent child protection office.
On Wednesday, Nash told The Chronicle of Social Change that he had thrown his hat in the ring by telling recruiters that he wanted the job.
He said that moving from the courts to a highly politicized office was like, “going from the frying pan into the fire.”
But years of experience in his courtroom, weighing the complexities of child abuse and neglect — and the troubles within the foster care system — made it almost impossible to resist the job. “Sadly that’s the way it is,” he said.
Dilys Garcia, who heads Los Angeles County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program — adults who represent the children in abuse and neglect court cases brought against their parents or caretakers — works out of Nash’s courthouse. Garcia was sad to see Nash leave the court, and hopeful about his prospects for leading the new office.
“He has been an inspiration to people in the child welfare field,” Garcia said. “Even at the darkest moment he finds a beacon of light to point to. His leaving is going to be a big loss, but I think it would be terrific if he ended up in this new role as child protection czar.”
The idea of an Office of Child Protection was first mentioned in an interim report issued by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection in December of last year.
The commission was established in June 2013, after an internal report pointing to “systemic failures” that compromised children’s safety was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in February of last year. Then in May of 2013, the Times broke its first story on a young boy’s apparently preventable death, a story followed by virtually every media outlet in Los Angeles.
The media furor compelled the Board of Supervisors to create a blue ribbon commission ordered it present a slate of recommendations by the end of 2013.
Last April, the blue ribbon commission finally issued a 42-point laundry list of recommendations. The one that got the most attention was the creation of the Office of Child Protection.
Since then, a transition team comprised of some of the blue ribbon members was established. Transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie has kept pressure on the county to enact fixes laid out by the commission, at times venting her frustration about the county supervisors’ commitment to moving apace.
“Progress is being made,” Leslie Gilbert-Lurie said. “Slowly, certain recommendations have begun to be implemented.”
An impediment has been county officials’ insistence that many of the recommendations must wait until the new child protection office is created.
Thirteen of 33 action items outlined in a timeline to implement reforms produced by the transition team are contingent on the naming of the new child protection czar.
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While Gilbert-Lurie would not comment on the prospect of Nash taking on that role, she did explain what she and her colleagues are trying to do in their limited capacity:
“The transition team’s role is to give the new director a running start when they take over,” she said. “So they are not starting from day one; that the information we gathered and some of the pressure we kept on the system along the way allows them step in a couple of months ahead.”
While it is still unclear when the new director will be named, Nash knows where he would start if granted the opportunity:
“Dead children were the catalyst for this whole process, okay, so that needs to be the initial focus in my opinion,” Nash said.