The Office of Child Abuse Prevention

04/06/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Fostering Media Connections releases its third Los Angeles County Child Protection Checkup, as all eyes turn to the new Office of Child Protection's efforts to stop child abuse before it ever happens.

Last week, the University of Southern California School of Social Work held a panel discussion exploring how research can be used to improve public systems that serve children.

Among the guests was Fesia Davenport, Los Angeles County's newly minted "Director of Child Protection." Davenport, whose Office of Child Protection is central to the County's ambitions to overhaul the way it contends with child abuse, said that a more apt title for the six-person unit would be "the office of child abuse prevention."

While subtle, the semantics here are critical.

The idea for an office to oversee child protection in the county was first officially floated in a December 2013 interim report submitted by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection (BRC), which disbanded in April of last year.

The two triggers to the BRC's creation were a report leaked to The Los Angeles Times in early 2013 that tore into the county's system of responding to child abuse, and the May 2013 Times story of Gabriel Fernandez, which exposed the very same problems in horrific detail.

"There is widespread agreement among the Board, DCFS leadership, social workers and citizen activists that the child welfare system and the manner of investigating critical cases of child abuse is dysfunctional," reads the June 2013 board motion establishing the BRC.

While the commission quickly became a catch-all for everything child welfare -- from the intersection of education and foster care to issues facing youth as they transition out of the system -- its true purpose was to do a better job of identifying which children were at highest risk of abuse, and find ways to better protect those that were.

And it is here -- in the realm of child abuse prevention -- where the most promise for deep, real impact lies.

The organization I founded, Fostering Media Connections, has just released its third Child Protection Checkup. These Checkups are an attempt to synthesize our reporting with public documents and news stories published by Los Angeles media outlets to describe the pace of child protection reform in the L.A. County.

Since our last Checkup, released in November, the county has made concrete steps forward, including, but not limited to:

  • Promoting Davenport to the Office of Child Protection
  • Opting into state funding to equalize foster care payments for non-relative and relative caregivers
  • Passing a motion to pair public health nurses with Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) social workers on certain child abuse investigations
  • Approving a county-wide mission statement centered on child protection

"But what may be more profound than these concrete examples of progress is the slow turn of a county, one that has more children than most states, toward putting children first," we wrote in the current Checkup.

What has emerged over the past two years of child protection reform is the possibility of a countywide orienting principal wherein all the public agencies that touch children are made to realize their roles in child abuse prevention.

The strength of that child abuse prevention orientation will come at the confluence of new data sets that reveal risk factors associated with child maltreatment before it ever happens, and the county's ability to look to agencies and community-based organizations outside the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) when attempting "real" child abuse prevention.

In the pages of The Chronicle of Social Change, we have devoted significant attention to the application of predictive risk modeling tools to preventing child maltreatment. This has been made possible by groundbreaking data linkage projects forged by researchers at USC and the University of California-Berkeley, wherein vast data sets on child abuse reporting made available by the California Department of Social Services have been linked with birth records.

What has emerged is an ever-clearer picture of which children are at highest risk for abuse at their births, begging the question of what resources this county or any public system should throw at preventing child abuse. In the coming days, The Chronicle of Social Change will publish stories chronicling efforts to introduce predictive analytics into child abuse prevention in New Zealand and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which could help inform Los Angeles' efforts.

Jacquelyn McCroskey, co-director of USC's Children's Data Network, argued in a February 2015 Huffington Post blog post that support should be provided to foster county "coordination with cities, schools, community-based agencies and grassroots groups that work with potentially susceptible families and children on a daily basis."

This sentiment, that public services should co-mingle with community-based efforts, was echoed by Miranda Sheffield, a peer advocate with the Children's Law Center of California. Sheffield, who experienced foster care, and now works to ensure that youth involved in the juvenile dependency system, was featured in a story on predictive analytics that ran in The Chronicle in October of last year.

For her, it is no surprise that recently released county-level data from the Children's Data Network shows the highest reports of abuse and neglect in the county are found in South L.A. and the Antelope Valley.

"The department [DCFS] is doing exactly what it was made to do," Sheffield told me recently. "It's an engine that is on auto-pilot with continuous detentions in certain communities that are continuously targeted."

Instead of relying on DCFS to wade into the community, she sees what the county is doing through the Office of Child Protection as a chance to do what she calls "real prevention." As opposed to pushing new monies to DCFS to "prevent abuse," something outside its job description, Sheffield said: "It means that there has to be more of allowing these communities to do what they have to do."

In an interview a few days after the USC Social Work event, I described Sheffield's reasoning to Child Protection Director Davenport. She agreed that child abuse prevention is more the provenance of other public agencies and community-based organizations than DCFS alone.

"I think that unfortunately there will always be need for child protection in a conventional sense," she said. "You would want to strengthen families and empower communities to empower families to reduce the numbers of children that come through the pipeline."

Now, we watch and see if such a goal can be accomplished outside of the confines of DCFS alone.