Another LA County children and family services director leaves next month

Is LA's defiance of a subpoena legal?
Is LA's defiance of a subpoena legal?
s_falkow/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

Jackie Contreras, the interim director of the beleaguered Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, will be leaving next month — the third agency chief to depart in nine months. She spoke with KPCC on today's "AirTalk."

Department spokesman Nishith Bhatt told the Los Angeles Times that Contreras will return to a job at Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based foundation dedicated to improving the child welfare system. Bhatt said her departure was not related to the ongoing turmoil at the agency.

"The DCFS does not have a resources problem. It has a management problem," L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said on "AirTalk."

The agency has been under scrutiny since reports in The Los Angeles Times that more than 70 children had died since 2008 of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of county social workers. Many of those deaths, county officials have confirmed, involved serious case management errors.

Contreras said that Yaroslavsky made an excellent point about DCFS management. She agreed that management needs to be improved. "We simply don't have the luxury to do otherwise." However, Contreras said that social work takes time and that heavy social worker case loads make it "challenging to do the quality of work that people in this community want to see."

On Monday, the Times reported that supervisors are defying a state subpoena for county records involving deaths of children under the department's oversight.

Yaroslavsky said he did not support the board's strategy to not turn over specific documents. "There's a whole volume of so-called 'confidential documents' that the board is arguing is also attorney-client privilege, and that's a whole other question."

"Every time a child dies in our county who is somehow in our system the DCFS does an investigation," Yaroslavsky said. "I thought that the appropriate response to the state would be ‘let's get all the confidential documents that we can.’"

Contreras said that, when it comes to turning over documents, "That is a decision for the Board of Supervisors to make." Contreras said that the department has cooperated fully with the audit of DCFS. She also said that "It's really unfortunate that the decision was made to stop the audit at this time."

Yaroslavsky said that he doesn't think that the state auditor leaked information.

Contreras's resignation will take effect Sept. 16, marking the third departure by an agency director in nine months. Trish Ploehn was forced out in December. In May, her replacement, Antonia Jimenez, quit after defying the Board of Supervisors' plan to reform the department.

Yaroslavsky said he doesn't think it will be difficult to find a new interim DCFS director. "We have a number of candidates that we're looking at who are interested." Yaroslavsky did say it would take "a number of months."

“This is a big job," Yaroslavsky said. "Outside of New York it is the biggest welfare department in the country."

They had several candidates earlier this year when they were looking for a permanent director, Yaroslavsky said, but "We waited too long." He said that they lost two top candidates.

Yaroslavsky said that David Sanders turned the department around in less than three years, so "I'm not pessimistic about being able to find good folks."