The announcement went out Monday morning that the head of the Department of Children and Family Services, Trish Ploehn, has been removed as the head of DCFS.
The LA Times predicted her ouster over a month ago.
Axing Ploehn may or may not be the right thing to do. The opinions around town (and beyond) on the matter are all over the place.
Some feel she was simply not up to the job, and that a recent string of child deaths proved it. Others suggest that, in a long troubled and secretive department that has been chronically plagued by child deaths and other horrors, she was simply the nearest and most obvious person to blame.
(The LA Weekly reported in November that as early September, Ploehn’s attorney wrote the County CEO about a “smear campaign” against her allegedly coming from a couple of the supervisors.)
She will be replaced on a purely interim basis by Antonia Jimenez, a top aide to county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, while a nationwide search for a permanent director takes place.
In a story for the LA times, Garrett Therolf writes that it is hoped that Jimenez will begin whipping the department into shape even during her temporary tenure.
Jimenez will not have the benefit of significant child welfare experience. She came to Los Angeles County government only months ago after working as a senior manager at Deloitte, the management consulting firm, and in Massachusetts state government, including the governor’s office, focusing mostly on healthcare issues.
Since arriving in L.A., however, she has gained officials’ confidence for her management expertise and has been admired for her reputation as a turnaround expert. Behind the scenes, she has asked supervisors’ aides to pull back from their involvement in the department’s affairs to give her and the chief executive’s staff the opportunity to take nearly singular ownership of the day-to-day efforts to correct the agency.
Looking in from the outside, the disheartening part of this whole thing is that Ploehn is just the latest in a string of DCFS directors who have gone from being the the possible saviors of the LA County foster care system.
I don’t know Ploehn, but I did talk at length, on several occasions with her predecessor’s predecessor, Anita Bock.
Bock was a rising star in the foster care world, recruited in 1999 to come to Los Angeles after she had a dramatic success in overhauling Miami’s smaller but similarly ailing foster-care system.
When we talked a decade ago, in the spring of 2000, Bock was still viewed as the new DCFS savior, but I found her to be very down to earth and passionate about the work. This is a little of what she said about what needed fixing at DCFS:
“Most of our social workers have 50 or 60 cases, which is quadruple the nationally recommended number of 15. That’s clearly unworkable. We also have a bureaucracy that actively prevents people on the frontlines from making decisions that are in the best interests of the child, and tends to meet its own needs first.” She smiled wryly. “Which means it’s doing whatever it can to avoid liability. We can’t afford to operate like that anymore. We have to put the needs of the kids first, the needs of everybody else second.”
Bock also described the required training for foster parents as woefully inadequate. “And we should do a complex psychological and social evaluation before we place a child, in order to determine their specific needs and match them with an appropriate family,” she said. “Instead, we thrust children into care without any kind of effective assessment. That’s just a recipe for problems.”
So what to do?
Bock sighed. “We have to gently and humanely unravel the mess that is L.A. County foster care,” she said. “And the community needs to step up to the plate as well. There’s a good reason that all these kids are flooding into the system. American children are in deep trouble. That’s obvious everywhere you look.” Still she insisted that she is optimistic. “I think in six months or a year, this agency is going to really surprise everybody — not just the state but the whole country.”
As I said, that was ten years ago.
Unfortunately, instead of gobs of progress, there were some incremental moves forward. The bureaucracy and the resistance was formidable. Yet, while Bock made visible improvements. The troubled department didn’t move fast enough and, after three years, Bock’s contract wasn’t renewed.
Following Bock, there was David Sanders, another purported savior. Sanders wasn’t tossed out, but got so fed up that he quit DCFS to go work elsewhere.
Enter Trish Ploehn, the first director promoted from within the organization and someone on whom many hopes were pinned. And now exit Trish Ploehn.
That’s three directors in 10 years— soon to be four.
It makes one wonder if perhaps the problems are not just with the directors. Perhaps there is something deeper and more systemic that continues not to be addressed.
Still, as foster care activist/journalist Daniel Heimpel points out, under Ploehn there were some substantive changes.
Not knowing the full circumstance of Ploehn’s removal, I can only offer what I do know. Under her watch the number of children in care was dramatically reduced, sparing thousands of children from the trauma of removal. She was the architect of a culture shift that compelled social workers to toe the scary line between the safety of foster care versus the value of leaving that child in a family home.
“This is not the easy route,” Ploehn wrote in a letter to her workers announcing the end of her tenure. “But it is what we know to be best for the children and families we serve. And this is the work that needs to be done moving forward – ensuring that each and every child in our County truly enjoys a sense of wholeness, of the security that comes with being a member of a safe, strong, loving family.”
From the outside things seem black and white. But we as a culture left those hard decisions to the workers under Ploehn’s watch. They were the ones who had to decide whether a child was safer in his or her family home or in a foster care system known to be imperfect. As one worker told me “the only way they [the children] would be safer is if we slept in the homes with them.”
But the workers don’t sleep in broken homes and humans have the capacity to act horribly. Whenever that happened, we looked for someone to blame. Too often that was the Department and its head. Now she is gone. Without someone to blame, maybe it is time we all ask what we can do to help our collective children.
Yes. What he said.
UPDATE: in January 2003, the wonderful writer Ed Hume wrote an article for LA Magazine called “The Unwanted. It was about DCFS in general, and the infamous and now-closed MacLaren Hall, in particular. I was rereading the story this morning and was struck by this paragraph:
Bold pronouncements from county officials that a solution is at hand have become an annual ritual, followed by another ritual: rounds of finger-pointing and firings when little is solved. (Anita Bock, ousted last July as director of the Department of Children and Family Services is only the latest casualty….)
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Photo by Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times
JIM NEWTON LAUNCHES A WEEKLY LAT COLUMN AND FINDS WIDESPREAD DISAPPOINTMENT IN VILLAGRAIGOSA
It’s good. Read it.
Here’s how it opens:
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s inauguration, on a sunny Los Angeles morning 5 1/2 years ago, was a moment of celebration and promise. Villaraigosa’s personal future appeared limitless; the city seemed poised to reap great things. “We need,” he said that day to 3,000 adoring supporters, “to start thinking big again.”
That feels like a long time ago.
THE COST OF MONDAY’S HEALTH CARE RULING
The NY Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg analyzes what Monday’s ruling on the health care bill really means in a practical sense. (Hint. It’s not good.)