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Embattled head of L.A. County's child welfare office may be on the way out, sources say

November 12, 2010 | 12:42 pm

Trishploehn Los Angeles County officials are putting plans in place to remove Trish Ploehn as the director of their embattled Department of Children and Family Services, according to high-level officials familiar with the matter.

Ploehn will likely be reassigned elsewhere in the county, and William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, is expected to appoint an interim director to allow for the search of a permanent replacement, according to the sources who asked not to be identified because it was a personnel decision that had not been made public.

News that her departure may be imminent comes as top county leaders have acknowledged the department is in crisis, with a massive backlog of open investigations into child-abuse allegations and a history of mistakes in the oversight of abused and neglected children that sometimes contributed to their injuries or deaths.

Ploehn, a licensed social worker, joined the department in 1979 and worked her way to the top post in September 2006, overseeing more than 7,300 employees in one of the most difficult jobs in local government. During her tenure, she has been credited with improving the stability of placements for the 30,000 children in the dependency system and thinking creatively about ways to allow more children to remain in their own homes.

But aides to the board of supervisors said support for her waned as mismanaged cases came to light and two outside reports found shortcomings in the department’s management.

In August, the county’s Office of Independent Review issued a report that said Ploehn’s department did not fully comply with a 2007 state law requiring the release of numerous records in fatality cases. Workers responsible for the disclosure were not communicating properly with other sections of the agency, the report found, and the breakdown led to a "a virtual paralysis of the statute's intent."

Last month, Fujioka’s office issued a report to supervisors that said a persistent backlog of child-abuse investigations in Los Angeles County has led to a "crisis," with four in 10 open inquiries stretched beyond the state's two-month deadline. The Times reported Friday on those findings, which were publicly released this week.

In a brief telephone conversation Friday, Ploehn declined to comment on whether county officials are planning to remove her as department head. She said she was unable to talk at the moment and would call back later.

Fujioka referred questions to a spokesman, Ryan Alsop, who said he had no knowledge of any impending moves at the Department of Children and Family Services.

Asked if sources were incorrect when they said Fujioka had spoken specifically about the move, Alsop said, "No, I don't know anything about conversations, I have no idea."

“All personnel matters, particularly the reassignment of a department head, is [Fujioka’s] decision and that decision has not been made,” Alsop said.

Read: Persistent backlog in L.A. County child abuse probes has led to a crisis, report says

-- Garrett Therolf

Photo: Trish Ploehn, director of L.A. County's child welfare department, at a 2009 meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Credit: Los Angeles Times