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Los Angeles County: "Oz Without the Wizard," Part 2

When Google instantly links "Los Angeles County Probation" to phrases like "scandal plagued," "rampant corruption," and "where mayhem has reigned for years," it just might be time to call in the cavalry.
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We've been here before.

In the 1970s, King/Drew Hospital's best nurses demanded removal of incompetent colleagues who were endangering patients. The County transferred the good nurses and kept the incompetents. Twenty years later, King/Drew's emergency facilities had to be mismanaged into closure before County Supervisors finally were forced to cede control over a new hospital to independent medical professionals.

The harder and more important question is why County institutions ignore early warnings, massively misspend, reward incompetence, and repeatedly prove unable to reverse dysfunction or enact even simple reforms like data sharing. It's complicated, but a thumbnail sketch is critical to seeing why the County cannot reform Probation without significant outside help.

Los Angeles County, the nation's largest local government, is a world unto itself. Its huge departments are reactive and risk-averse. This sclerotic mindset limits action to "inside factors" that bureaucrats can control from their desks. Refusal to acknowledge "outside factors" - like gangs - creates a rigid outlook that often defies common sense, and almost always blocks creative problem solving. This was most recently evident when the County cut down a comprehensive gang reduction model to fit the needs of only 100 wards of Probation.

It is also a Darwinian culture in which siloed departments compete against each other for budgetary dominance and votes from the Board of Supervisors. Cross-silo cooperation is so rare that when Probation and the Department of Children and Family Services worked together to keep a family intact, it generated a Section A article in the L.A. Times. These dynamics not only harm children, but, as one expert noted, "The County is growing a lot of the worst kids from inside its own departments because they don't integrate across silos and do not address outside factors."

Data sharing and transparency also threaten power, so information is scattered, making basic items like the number of employees or gang programs as inaccessible as encrypted codes. The insurmountable distance between department heads and front line staff also prevents critical information from reaching top managers, who 'lid' everything to avoid looking uninformed at public meetings and triggering the televised wrath of Supervisors. In turn, to compensate for lack of information and control Supervisors, without sufficiently expert staff, exert control over most budgets and interfere in department details - despite a new County Chief Executive Officer and new leaders of Probation who clearly also lack the capacity to change these dynamics without outside help. Not every department has this level of dysfunction, but for the big departments that deal with poor children, the inevitable mistrust drives everyone to bury problems where they fester into catastrophic failures like King/Drew.

In sum, the County is hard wired for denial and disaster. Or as one expert summed up the dysfunction: "The County is Oz without the wizard."

When Google instantly links "Los Angeles County Probation" to phrases like "scandal plagued," "rampant corruption," and "where mayhem has reigned for years," it just might be time to call in the cavalry. Bad press does not justify heavier intervention by the United States Department of Justice.

Routine violations of civil rights do justify deeper DOJ control. And entrenched inability to protect children mandates it.

Eventually DOJ will need to intervene more aggressively because the County is as unable to fix Probation, as it was unable to save King/Drew's emergency room from closure. The denial, feudal politics, warped incentives and culture of entitled indolence that doomed Watt's only ER hospital have also perverted Probation. The good employees of Probation are swamped by dysfunction that is now the norm.

Like King/Drew, Probation has lost its mission to political micromanagement and an insular culture that fosters incompetence. And as with King/Drew, it will take an outside power to force sustained action that will outlast the headlines and inevitable inertia that will return once the spotlight is gone. Without a consortium of outside experts to construct a professionally designed rehabilitation system run by top professionals and free of political meddling, more probationers will graduate illiterate, malnourished and prison-bound - and that's for the lucky ones who did not suffer gang violence during their custody.

The kids in Probation's custody don't have the 20 years it took for King/Drew to implode before the County was forced to bring in the outside professionals to stand beside the inside professionals. It is too late for the County's standard flurry of promises to fix yet another failed institution.

Just as with the resurrection of King/Drew, expanded federal supervision must empower outside professionals to help Probation's new leaders create a functioning culture. And the voters need to create a new child safety enforcement and accountability unit that is beyond Supervisorial censoring and that has the power to publish data and enforce the well being of the County's most vulnerable kids.