Students present research, solutions on child welfare to LA officials
By Matthew Kredell
Graduate students from the Media for Policy Change class offered by the USC Price School of Public Policy presented potential solutions to problems in the child welfare system in front of L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and others leading the efforts for improved child protection in Southern California.
The Child Welfare Solutions Symposium on April 30 was the culmination of semester-long projects practicing solution-based journalism by finding the stories of children being failed by the system, but also looking for ways they could be better served.
“There’s an opportunity and a necessity for an orienting principle in this county wherein children are put first by multiple agencies,” said USC Price adjunct instructor Daniel Heimpel. “I want to change the trajectory of life for kids in L.A. County and throughout the country. To do so, I found if you focus on solutions when you’re doing this coverage, you can actually move things forward. But I realized I needed a whole army of solution-based journalists out there. This is the third time I’ve done this course at the Price School, and I’m so impressed with what the students have done.”
There are more than 150,000 allegations of child abuse fielded annually by the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), of which 30,000 are substantiated as abuse and 15,000 children removed from their biological parents.
Ridley-Thomas was a leading force behind the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which completed a final report a year ago making recommendations on reforms to the child welfare system that are beginning to be implemented. He noted that ensuring the welfare of children often involves not only the efforts of DCFS, but also the Department of Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney and the Department of Health Services.
“Those children who, through no fault of their own, have been placed in our care – and I like to call it our care rather than just our custody – we are legally and morally obligated to protect them from further harm,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We need to collectively figure out how we can move the youngsters out of harm’s way and into stable and safe environments. In other words, it’s about improving the children’s mental health and physical well-being.”
MPA student Holden Slattery presented on assessing risk to keep children safe. He noted that social workers in the county juggle about 30 cases at any one time, and that they need better access to interdepartmental data about the children and families they serve to decide which ones face a more significant risk of harm.
MPL student Joanie Evans discussed the disproportionality of black youth in foster care. Only nine percent of children in the county are black, yet they make up 30 percent of the child welfare system. She suggested cultural competency training for law enforcement, social workers and other institutions that work with black families and children.
MPP students Christina Kang and Sandy Lo partnered on the subject of Latino immigrant children, which is complicated by approximately one-sixth of Latino parents in California being undocumented.
IPPAM student Nao Nakanishi touched on how supporting the mental health of parents would help to prevent child abuse; while MPA student Xuelai Cao looked at the mental health of children and how the foster-care system needs to offer emotional support in addition to shelter for these vulnerable kids.
A group of MPA students – Kuaikuai Wei, Jinxue Wang and Han Jiang – discussed the need to improve oversight and curb the overuse of psychotropic medications for foster youth. In addition, MPA student Sarah Thomas focused on the importance of youth feedback on foster families, while MPA student Xueting Guo brought up the cycle of teenage girls in foster care giving birth to other children who will go into foster care.
One of the results from the Blue Ribbon Commission was the formation of an Office of Child Protection, which opened in February. Interim director Fesia Davenport attended the symposium and was inspired by the students’ work.
“Please know I’ll be talking to the professor about offering you all jobs as researchers and implementers in the Office of Child Protection,” Davenport said, following the presentations.