LA County Tracks Progress on Homelessness, Child Welfare, Justice Reform

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A semi-annual report on Los Angeles County's priority issues -- justice reform, child protection, health integration, homelessness, environmental health and immigration -- released today highlighted some major initiatives and wins, but forced taxpayers to read between the lines to understand the challenges ahead.

“This is a remarkable set of accomplishments across six diverse priority areas,” Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai told City News Service. “I am so proud that our county team consistently delivers innovative and thoughtful solutions to improving the lives of the people we serve.”

The Office of Child Protection -- established two years ago in response to the death of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy tortured and beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend -- has launched a smartphone application that allows social workers to check criminal background data on the families they visit.

OCP Director Michael Nash told the board the tool was rolled out a few weeks ago and should be in use countywide by September. It required new agreements to share data across agencies despite initial reluctance and thorny legal issues.

“This is only the first phase,” Nash said. “The second phase involves access to mental health and other relevant data. And I can tell you that social workers are very excited about this new tool and rightfully so.”

Nash also pointed to the launch of a three-year pilot program to change the tools used to assess risks to children and drive decisions to leave them with their family or remove them from the home for their own safety.

However, the three-year timeline shows how difficult it is to effect dramatic changes and none of it came quickly enough to prevent the death of another child in the Antelope Valley last month, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, whose mother and her boyfriend are charged with murdering and torturing him.

The county's Homeless Initiative achieved significant traction over the nine months from July 2017 to March 2018, placing 10,330 homeless individuals in crisis, bridge or interim housing funded at least in part by Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters to fund homeless services. Another 5,239 people secured permanent housing as a result of Measure H funding.

“This level of progress in such a short time is unprecedented in a major new government-funded initiative,” Homeless Initiative Director Phil Ansell told the board. “It speaks to the level of collaboration and alignment and mobilization across county departments, cities and a vast network of homeless service providers on the ground.”

The county integrated health agency has become an critical part of that collaboration, allocating funding received under the Mental Health Services Act and helping to identify those in need through projects like the Skid Row Sobering Center, which has served nearly 3,000 clients since it opened in January 2017.

The agency provides wraparound supportive services like mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Supervisor Janice Hahn quizzed Ansell as to whether he thought the county would reach its goals before Measure H expires.

“Every time I see what we're doing, I still feel like the numbers are low in terms of how many people we have sleeping on our streets every night,” Hahn said. “Do you think we're going to get this? It's now nine years left.”

Ansell said he was “very confident” that the county would permanently house 45,000 people within five years and prevent another 30,000 from becoming homeless, as promised.

On the criminal justice front, the Office of Diversion and Reentry has helped release more than 2,000 mentally ill inmates from jail into community-based treatment programs or permanent supportive housing, where they can better get the help they need, according to Peter Espinoza, who leads that office.

ODR has also focused on diverting pregnant women from the jail and 36 of those women are now in interim housing or permanent supportive housing rather than behind bars, Espinoza said.

As for inmates who don't qualify for diversion, the county can also point to approval of the final draft of the Environmental Impact Report for the planned $2.2 billion downtown jail treatment facility as a major accomplishment. Discussions with design-build firms are underway for that facility as well the Mira Loma Women's Detention Center.

Agencies largely reported successes in the 25-page report, rather than highlighting hurdles they had failed to clear, but questions raised by board members offered some insight.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger pointed to a “staffing crisis” at the sheriff's department, which is using overtime hours to fill a gap of 1,500 to 2,000 unfilled positions.

The Civilian Oversight Commission will be looking at that problem, responded Brian Williams, who leads the commission.

“It's a vitally important issue, not just in terms of the overtime, but because of the discipline,” Williams said. “There are issues that are associated with the overtime. As the officers become more fatigued, have to work extra hours, then things begin to happen.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis raised concerns about the level of staffing at county medical hubs responsible for forensic medical examinations of children suspected to be abused or neglected.

Nash said the OCP was working with DCFS and other relevant departments “to ensure that we have the resources, the training, the policies and the practices in place so that we can get these kids to the hubs the way the hubs were set up for” and meet relevant legal standards.

Nash said the group was also working to ensure that resources were being reallocated to the Antelope Valley, as directed by the board in the wake of Avalos' death.

Asked later to clarify whether she was concerned about the quantity or quality of staffing at the medical hubs, Solis responded via email through a spokesman that the system provides “high quality health care and mental health services for children in foster care” and “the commitment of our physicians and medical teams is unparalleled.”

Overall, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the board was focusing on its clients in a way it hadn't before.

“This is about second chances. This is about trying to keep people from being harmed, from being hurt, from being cheated, from being frightened ... in every way having us help their lives be better. That doesn't always succeed,” Kuehl said.

Photos: Getty Images

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