Politics

A year after scathing report, effects of foster care reforms still murky

Social worker Alfred McCloud knocks on the front door of a home in south L.A. to check on a toddler. McCloud works the night shift with the Department of Child and Family Services' Emergency Response Team.
Social worker Alfred McCloud knocks on the front door of a home in south L.A. to check on a toddler. McCloud works the night shift with the Department of Child and Family Services' Emergency Response Team.
Grant Slater/KPCC

A year after a Blue Ribbon panel declared a "state of emergency" in Los Angeles's child welfare system and proposed dozens of reforms, the county has made a handful of changes but the effects are still an open question.

Among the changes the county has implemented:

"The classic challenge is how do you measure something that hasn't happened" - like preventing abuse and neglect - said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, an assistant professor of social work at USC and director of the Children's Data Network. "We have federal measures, we have state measures, but they're really focused on what happens to kids and families once that first report to the child protection system has occurred."

L.A. County measures up pretty well compared to other child welfare agencies in California by some metrics.

For instance, the county beats the average in the number of infants who are the subject of calls for abuse after social workers determine they can remain at home after an initial report. Statewide, 60 percent of those who remained at home had a new abuse allegation within 5 years. In Los Angeles, it was 55 percent. 

But the reasons are unclear, Putnam-Hornstein said.

It could be because social workers here leave fewer infants in the care of their biological parents to begin with. Or it could be that L.A. County has better services than elsewhere. Or it could be that the population in L.A. County is less demographically risky. 

"Even just this one measure of performance is not easy to interpret," Putnam-Hornstein said.

The blue ribbon panel was created after an 8-year-old boy, Gabriel Fernandez, was brutally killed by his mother and her boyfriend. Prior to his death, multiple people had reported suspicion of abuse in his home, and social workers had even visited the family, but no action had been taken.

The commission found that Fernandez's death was a particularly gruesome example of longstanding systemic problems inside the department, which is tasked with preventing child abuse, investigating allegations and helping kids once they're in the system.

The commission's recommended reforms were diverse, from the small and programmatic, to the sweeping. Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, who vice-chaired the group, said a lot of the recommendations were not new.

"Many good, sound recommendations that had kept children safer had been made over the years," she said. "The recommendations were never implemented."

She credits the progress made in the past year to support from the Board of Supervisors. Still, many recommendations have not yet be implemented.

And measuring how well a county is doing at keeping kids safe, is relatively uncharted territory, Putnam-Hornstein said.

"There is correctly an urgency to this work, but there's also a desire to see impact right away" because the stakes are so high, she said. "There will need to be some metrics that can measure that, in my mind."