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Philip Browning reflects on his tenure as head of DCFS

Director of the Department of Children and Family Services Philip Browning holds up a sign with the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000.
Director of the Department of Children and Family Services Philip Browning holds up a sign with the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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This week Philip Browning, the director of Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services, announced that he'd soon be retiring.

DCFS serves roughly 36 thousand kids a year. The agency handles all sorts of things including arranging for adoptions, organizing foster care, and investigating allegations of child abuse.

Browning first came on board with the agency as an interim director in the summer of 2011, and this Wednesday announced that he'd be retiring in early 2017.

He spoke with Take Two's Alex Cohen about his decision to retire and about the successes and failures he oversaw as head of  L.A. County's child protective services agency.

Interview highlights:

On what initially drew him to the field and why he's retiring now

"I've been doing this for about 45 years, in other states and the District of Columbia, and most recently in California. And I think it's so important to have people who will stay committed, because we have thousands of social workers every day who make a difference in the life of a child, they rescue children from unsafe environments. And so I think, over my career, I've been able to mentor workers and to help manage programs...and so this is sort of the culmination of a career. I do think there has been a lot of progress and improvement made in this department... we do have thousands of children every day for whom we have direct responsibility and it's a daunting task for anyone.

On the extent to which he holds himself responsible for the agency's failings, including the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2012

"As the director of the agency, I am responsible, and so I take all of these sorts of things personally. And that was a tragic, tragic situation. And I do think that was a watershed moment for this county. Based on that incident, there was a blue-ribbon commission created, there were changes proposed. Now frankly, a lot of those changes were already in the works, and one of the things that was so critical was to hire additional social workers. Because social workers go every day into dangerous situation where they don't know who's on the other side of the door that they'r knocking on. And they have to make a decision in just a few moments. And so I think over the last few years, we've hired an additional two thousand social workers... which has reduced the case load. We have a brand new training program that allows workers to practice before they actually get out to into the home of an individual. But in the case you just mentioned, we did find that there were errors made and we did take disciplinary action. I do think that there have been many many changes... but I do have responsibility for what goes on in this department."

On the way he makes peace with the responsibility he and DCFS bear for cases in which children have died, including the death of 11-year-old Yonatan Daniel Aguilar who was starved, drugged, and hidden in a locked closet

"I think we have to take things day by day, and there are some things that get magnified where the department really couldn't have done anything different and the young boy in the closet, I've looked at all of those records and reports and feel pretty confident that the department did everything we could in that situation. Now, the Gabriel Fernandez case was not that way, and we did bear more responsibility, and we've taken action. But that still doesn't negate the fact that there are adverse consequences that happened for that child and for the family and for the community. And I think one of the things that's so important is for the community to recognize that even though we have a lot of workers and social workers, it's a community issue. And we need to have support from the community, they need to tell us when there's something going on. We get about 200,000 calls a year that we need to investigate, and we need an additional thousand social workers to really have our case load where we need it to be so that we can provide the service that's so essential."

On what he sees as the successes and high points of his tenure  

"So we detain about 10,000 children a year. We take them out of unsafe environments and put them with a relative or a foster parent. And one of the things that's so gratifying is to see where a child is being adopted by an individual, a loving family. So we have adoption day, which is so important. We've been able to automate things which in other jurisdictions haven't been automated that allow us to place children with relatives. So the national average of children being placed with relatives is about 29 percent. In L.A. County, over 50 percent of the children that we have to take away from their biological parents are placed with relatives. And that's a gratifying thing for me to know that we're trying to maintain those relationships."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.