On Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton’s Task Force on the Protection of Children met for the fourth time. While the issues the group is trying to tackle may seem grown in the Midwest, they have strong parallels with what is going on all the way out in Los Angeles County.
By looking west to L.A.’s current child protection reform process, Minnesota’s child welfare leaders may find some ideas to consider — one being the naming a child protection czar to compel all child-serving public agencies to live up to their end of the bargain in keeping children safe.
But before we get there, let’s lay out the context. Tell me if this story sounds familiar.
On May 22, 2013, a call came into the fire department in dusty Palmdale, Calif. Eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez had stopped breathing. The boy would die two days later, his smiling school portrait and the wretched account of his death quickly dominating the news cycle in Los Angeles.
Gabriel’s death, the media coverage that followed and a report on child deaths leaked to the Los Angeles Times in February 2013 created an urgency among the county’s all-powerful board of supervisors, who in turn authorized the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection.
Eight months later, in April, L.A.’s Blue Ribbon Commission issued a 42-point laundry list of recommended reforms in its final report. The one that gained the most attention was the creation of an Office of Child Protection, which would be vested “with County-wide authority to coordinate, plan, and implement one unified child protection system.”
The idea is that protecting children is a job much bigger than Child Protective Services. Law enforcement authorities, mental health and public health agencies, schools, and every other public entity that serves children all have a role to play in making children safe.
The issues in Los Angeles County — the largest child protection system in the world — and those found in Minnesota are largely the same. In both cases, the respective child protective systems are scrambling to deal with a child maltreatment threat that they could never really handle on their own.
Child welfare leaders in both areas would readily agree that preventing child maltreatment and adequately protecting children requires the integration of multiple systems. But as much as they may see that reality, the political will has never been there to undertake the daunting task of such integration.
So Los Angeles’ Blue Ribbon Commission came along with its elegant answer: the Office of Child Protection.
How might that work in Minnesota?
The governor’s task force would recommend the creation of a similar office in the report it is due to issue early next year. Minnesota’s Office of Child Protection would have a leader who would report directly to the governor. While I would argue that an eventual child protection czar should have the power to alter budgets across departments in the best interests of children, it is unclear that the state’s public agencies would relinquish such control to somebody concerned with mere children.
Regardless of budgetary power, the new czar would be entrusted with a cabinet-level position in the governor’s administration, giving him or her a bully pulpit to pressure agencies outside of child protection to devote manpower to protect children.
And that is what it may well take. If we are so concerned with cases of child death when they hit the front page, we should be willing to vest real power in a permanent child advocate.
Now, who would you want that person to be?
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change. He teaches public policy and journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy and at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy.