Can LA County fix its child welfare agency?

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A boy blowing bubbles with his guardian. Credit: Pixabay.

Family and friends held a private funeral today for Noah Cuatro, a 4-year-old boy from Palmdale who died under suspicious circumstances earlier this month. His parents said he drowned in a pool. But L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the boy's body -- at the time of his death -- showed signs of trauma that were inconsistent with drowning. 

Cuatro was under supervision from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services after authorities received more than a dozen calls about alleged abuse in his home. 

Now the L.A. Times is reporting that a court had authorized Cuatro's removal from the home in May, but that social workers didn't do so. 

Cuatro is the third child in six years to die under suspicious circumstances while under the supervision of DCFS in the Antelope Valley. 

L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger's district includes that area, and she introduced a motion this week calling for more resources for the DCFS in the Antelope Valley. The Board of Supervisors approved the motion. 

"We're not studying anymore we are taking swift immediate action… We are going to carve out a separate region for the Antelope Valley, and have a regional director up there overseeing what's going on. We are working with our community partners up there to develop social work curriculum," Barger tells KCRW host Chery Glaser. "And we are going to aggressively recruit. And we are also going to transfer (if needed) and maintain individuals in the Antelope Valley for a period that is if not equal or greater to what the average is right now in the other regional offices."

Staffing for a DCFS office in the Antelope Valley is often lower than the rest of LA County, and with much less experience. Barger says that alarms her. 

"A continuum of services and a continuum of social workers who are familiar with that region is vital. It's important to have people that understand that community, understand the network of services available, and understand the relationships that are necessary to ensure the safety of the children that we are charged for taking care of," she says. 

For staffers in the Antelope Valley DCFS offices, Barger is also proposing salary incentives, retention bonuses, transportation allowances, and more training and support. Where is the money going to come from? 

"At what price do you put on the child's life? We have the funding available. We have increased the number of social workers that are coming into our system. And the unique thing about Children and Family Services is that partial funding comes from the federal government, partial funding comes from the state," Barger says. "But I don't quantify a child's life. And if financial incentives are what we need, it's amazing how we can find resources for programs that we're not mandated to do. And in this case, this is a mandate. This is a crisis. And this is what is necessary to ensure that we do what we were put in charge of doing. And that is protecting children's lives."

But once the attention surrounding this case dies down, does Barger have a mechanism for ensuring these changes aren't forgotten or swept under the rug?

The supervisor says she expects that all recommendations are in the works and ready to be completed, or will be completed. "The audit recommended a continuous quality improvement division that would actually oversee and ensure that there's an ongoing comprehensive assessment and referrals in cases in the regional offices. This is going to be our safeguard. And we're doing it, and we're starting it in the Antelope Valley, but it's going to be county-wide. Because I tell my colleagues what happened in the Antelope Valley could happen anywhere in L.A. County." 

Barger says she's monitoring follow-ups on a weekly basis, and if she senses something is not getting done, she will bring individuals forward every Tuesday and hold them accountable. "Each one is going to be held accountable. If they cannot get it done, they need to move out of the way, and we'll put someone in there that can."

Is there going to be a greater willingness, if needed, to remove a child from their home? Barger says she believes there will be a spike in the number of children removed -- "out of the abundance of caution."

She says, "This is a federal and state guideline: that you do kinship placement with family reunification as the ultimate goal. But make no mistake, family reunification is not always going to be the best option for that child. And our social workers need to have the tools and the training necessary to make those calls based on their expertise… Understand this: our goal is to err on the side of the child."