UCLA Pritzker Center Town Halls Engage LA County Leaders

Bobby Cagle, director, LA County Department of Children and Family Services, and LACOE Superintendent Debra Duardo among featured speakers.

The aim of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families is to  prevent children from entering the child welfare system and to provide effective support to those already in it. 

It was a challenging assignment even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the turmoil over police brutality and racial injustice across the nation. 

The UCLA Pritzker Center has responded to these challenging times by drawing on its strengths as a collaborative hub for research, prevention and intervention efforts to launch a new virtual Town Hall series. The meetings gather experts from across the UCLA campus and leaders from other educational institutions and community organizations to identify pressing problems amid the pandemic, identify resources, and to share ideas, strategies and tactics for addressing problems. Most importantly, the Town Hall sessions have engaged leaders of the County of Los Angeles in the conversation. 

“These are unprecedented times and it really calls for an unprecedented level of cooperation and thought,” said Bobby Cagle, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, who recently served as a featured speaker of one of the town hall sessions. “I have to tell you, it has been a challenge beyond most anything I’ve experienced in a 31 year career in human services. And it has brought out in many ways, however, the best in the people that work for me, and many of the best things about our community.”

Building that sprit of cooperation and community is central to the purpose of the UCLA Pritzker Center’s Town Hall effort. Launched in March, the sessions have brought participants together to identify specific needs and issues in regions of Los Angeles County. They have also worked together to develop solutions such as a tutoring network of 150 UCLA student volunteers, offering support to parents and caregivers in Lancaster who are struggling to meet the educational needs of children with schools closed during the pandemic. 

“Amid the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, our Town Halls were launched to provide a critical forum for sharing ideas and expertise among experts from across campus. Together, we have coordinated our action for children and families in Los Angeles, especially those in foster care,” said Taylor Dudley, UCLA Pritzker Center’s administrative director. “The killing of George Floyd magnified the need to come together on behalf of Black families. It has been particularly beneficial to engage with L.A. leaders who are leading such important efforts. It’s been a great way to learn about the work they are engaged in, and to make them aware of UCLA’s many resources and our eagerness to help.”  

At the Town Hall event on May 22, Cagle shared some of the challenges the Department of Children and Family Services  (DCFS) face amid COVID-19 and the steps they are taking to meet them.

Despite health risks, county workers have continued to emphasize child safety, making contacts and visiting the homes of families. Some functions are now remote and available online. The courts have also been impacted, with closures, and numerous appearances being delayed. 

“The COVID epidemic has really changed things, and we’re doing a lot of work by distance,” Cagle said.  “However, the court has remained open for those cases where we have to have custody of children, where there’s an emergency and they’re gradually opening things back up.”

Cagle is also concerned about making sure that the health of social workers, families and children is not compromised. The DCFS has started using video technology whenever it can be done safely.

“We are looking toward our community outside of L.A. County and to the research community and the education community at the university level,” Cagle said, “because we need ideas around what it really looks like to do meaningful engagement with children and families in a video context. How do you ensure yourself that the child was okay if you’re looking at them through a video feed? That is something I think everyone is struggling with and something that we will continue to work with our partners to try to understand.”

The UCLA Pritzker Town Hall sessions have also engaged in conversation with Lisa Pinto, Child Welfare Deputy from the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Most recently, the UCLA Pritzker Center met with Debra Duardo (’13, EdD; ’96, MSW; ’94, BA, Women’s/Chicana Studies, Cum Laude), Superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

An alumna of GSE&IS, Duardo is deeply engaged in the development of plans for reopening public schools across Los Angeles County in the wake of the pandemic. As if that task was not difficult enough, she is doing so in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police and the resulting protests that have both shaken and inspired people and communities across the nation.

“Personally, it’s hard to make sense of it, it’s hard to make sense of watching a man killed on national television with (police) officers holding him down for almost nine minutes,” Duardo said.  “It’s very hard to watch. As a mother it tore me apart watching him call for his mother, it’s hard to understand, there is no understanding it. 

“… I am hopeful that this will lead to a new level of awareness that will lead to real change.  We need everyone to say this is not acceptable. If you don’t think this is horrific, if this does not get you to action, I don’t know what will.” 

Duardo added that at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, they are looking at all their systems to make sure they are addressing equity, that it is part of infrastructure, and making sure that it is at the forefront of all they do.

“This isn’t just something we need to talk about at the moment, but something we must continue,” Duardo said. 

“I tell educators, there is no avoiding these conversations. They need to listen, they need to learn, and they need to act. These conversations need to happen at every level.”

Amid the unrest, Duardo is also dealing with the challenges facing schools during the pandemic. In late May, LACOE released a framework for opening schools safely in the 2020-21 school year. 

“It’s complicated, and its difficult,” Duardo said. “We brought 25 superintendents together to build a framework to assist districts with reopening, but the decisions to reopen, the model of instruction will be the decision of local districts. 

“With our guidelines, our top priority is to keep everyone healthy and safe. We are doing everything possible that the experts in public health are telling us to do.”

Duardo noted that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted poor children, most of whom are children of color.  She is concerned that these children have not had the same access to instruction, and the access to Wi-Fi and technology devices they need to learn. Their parents are more likely to be essential workers and may not be at home to help them.  

“We realize this in our frameworks and are asking as we reopen schools how can we give local districts the tools they need to make decisions locally (to meet those needs), while always following the advice of the department of public health,” said Duardo.

In addition to addressing the academic needs of students, Duardo stressed the importance focusing on the social and emotional needs of children and families.  

“Right now, people are struggling, they have a lot of fear and anxiety. When there is this much fear and anxiety, I don’t care how good the instruction is, students are going to struggle to learn. 

“We need to make sure our children are emotionally healthy, that needs to be our number one priority.  We need to connect with them, tell them how much we care about them, and that we will help them through this.“  

The next UCLA Pritzker Center Town Hall is scheduled for August 7 from 12-1 on Zoom. Visit Eventbrite and follow “UCLA Pritzker Center” to receive updates and to register for the next Town Hall meeting.

“The town halls started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dudley said.  “But given what we have seen with the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, the nationwide uprising that has happened, we think the town halls should be a democratic forum where we can talk about all of the issues impacting children and families and our communities, and work toward solutions together.” 

For a look at past events from the UCLA Pritzker Center’s Town Hall series, visit the Center’s YouTube channel.