LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to create a child welfare commission Tuesday.
The vote comes as the Department of Child and Family Services faces continued scrutiny following a series of child abuse cases in which the agency failed to remove children from homes despite previous reports of abuse.
“I believe that our children deserve better,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who together with Supervisor Michael Antonovich called for the creation of a commission.
According to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the blue ribbon commission “is not intended to reinvent the wheel, rather the intent is to get the wheels turning and get DCFS and related agencies moving forward.”
The vote comes after authorities say an 8-year-old Palmdale boy was tortured and beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend in May, despite multiple investigations and an open abuse complaint.
According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the boy was tortured by 32-year-old Isauro Aguirre, his mother’s boyfriend. He suffered a broken skull and ribs, as well as cigarette burns, abrasions on his ankles and bruises all over his body, including from BB pellets lodged in his lungs and groin.
The Los Angeles Times obtained internal documents showing at least six complaints of child abuse and brutality were made to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, but county authorities failed to intervene, even despite calls from the young boy’s teacher.
The boy’s mother, 29-year-old Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, 32-year-old Aguirre, are each charged with capital murder in the case.
“We’ve had some tragedies lately that are just unspeakable,” said DCFS Director Phillip Browning, who told the board the agency would welcome the oversight. “We are going through a process of investigations.”
“We probably do need to provide you more information about what we’re doing on policy, training, new tools for our staff,” Browning said.
Under the plan, the commission would be granted access to the personnel records of case workers to the fullest extent allowed by law. Commission members will also be tasked with evaluating cooperation between DCFS and other agencies, including law enforcement, and will review department failures, policies and cases.
Each supervisor would appoint two independent members to the commission, and the group would be required to submit their findings and a plan of action by the end of the year.
But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that countless studies and more than 100 board motions have been made in the last 30 years.
One case worker who attended the meeting said the policies are not properly reaching those who are tasked with implementing them firsthand.
“There are policies out there but we’re not getting the training we need to know how to do our job the way that the county wants us to,” she said.
At a Lancaster city council meeting Tuesday night, social worker Jerry Dominguez spoke out about the state of DCFS employees.
Dominguez, who was not assigned to the Gabriel Fernandez case, said the department is over-worked and over-stressed, and employees fear retaliation for speaking out.
“I’m afraid I’m going to walk out and not have a job tomorrow,” said Dominguez, who has worked at the department for 18 years. “I can’t watch another social worker crash and burn.”
DCFS Senior Deputy Director Brandon Nichols told the Lancaster city council that reforms are on the way, including increased accountability, new training procedures for social workers, and a redesigned policy manual, in addition to the blue ribbon panel.
“Absolutely staff should be free to tell managers, to tell you, to tell people like that there are problems in the department, and not fear for retaliation,” said Nichols. “There is a failure in the system, and that child’s death could have been prevented.”
Robert Fernandez, the 8-year-old victim’s grandfather, hopes his son’s death was not in vain.
“He suffered,” Fernandez said. “And if they would have did their job he wouldn’t have been murdered.”
The investigation into the boy’s case is set to be completed July 8, and officials said disciplinary action will be taken against department employees if necessary.
Earlier this month, state lawmakers in Sacramento reached a deal to audit three county child protective agencies, including in Los Angeles and Orange counties.