Children’s Deaths on the Rise

Once again the Los Angeles Times has kept the issue of children deaths while in the care of the Department of Children and Family Services front and center in an article published on Tuesday, October 19, 2010, entitled, “Deaths from abuse and neglect increase among children under L.A. County oversight.” The article seems to suggest that one of the reasons for this rise in deaths has to do with the premature reunification of children with their families after having been removed from them because of abuse and neglect.

The policy of DCFS to keep children and their families together is laudable. All things being equal, children belong with their families. In some instances where parents may be challenged to care appropriately for their children, every attempt is made to find some relative who may become the principal caregiver to lessen the trauma of being removed from the home and their community. More times than not this is a successful practice and leads to wonderful outcomes for the children and the family. At Hillsides, we partner with DCFS and families to develop a plan that reunifies children with their families as soon as possible.

That being said, this goal of restoring children with their families must always be driven by the need to safeguard the well being of the child. No family reunification plan, as laudable as it might be, can risk the safety of any child. Balancing reunification with child safety can be difficult, and although we are often criticized for being too protective of the children in our care, we would prefer to err on the side of caution. For most families one day away from their children is one day too many, and so we are committed to restoring the family, but never at the risk of harming a child.

Vulnerable families need support to be successful. That help is manifested in organizations, communities, caregivers and resources committed to supporting them through a difficult time. Let me suggest that the reason for the rise in deaths among children in the care of DCFS has nothing to do with the policy of reuniting families, but rather, it has to do with an unnecessarily complicated system of care, overworked and demoralized staff and poor utilization of the resources.

As we have done in the past, we continue to encourage our County leaders to examine these three areas and begin the process of developing a new system of care that is appropriately resourced. It can not happen soon enough!

John Hitchcock honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

Part of the legacy that I’ve “inherited” at Hillsides is that of advocating for the children and families we serve. John Hitchcock, my predecessor, was an outspoken advocate for these children and worked diligently to establish this as a hallmark for Hillsides. Recently, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Community Human Service Agencies. What follows is the presentation that was made by the organization’s Board President, the Executive Director of Foothills Family Services Helen Morran Wolf. We join with ACHSA in acknowledging John’s great contribution to child welfare. Please join us in congratulating John!

Presentation: ACHSA Lifetime Achievement Award – John Hitchcock
This year ACHSA instituted a new award – The Lifetime Achievement award – designed to recognize a lifetime of work in the areas of social welfare, mental health or probation by one of our members who has made a significant and lasting impact on children, TAY or adults in Los Angeles County. I am delighted to announce that our first Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to John Hitchcock, former Executive Director of Hillsides Home for Children.

Before we give John his award, I want to share with you just a few of the amazing things that John has accomplished in his life’s work at Hillsides.

John was raised by his single mother, whose career in early education with a supportive employer and her circle of friends laid the foundation for John in understanding how to be a compassionate, strong and brave person. While he was in college and working at a summer camp with severely emotionally disturbed boys, John realized that he had discovered his mission in life – to heal these children and help them grow into strong, healthy adults. After getting his masters in social work in 1965 he moved to Pasadena with his wife Ida to become the Assistant Director of Hillsides. For John, “Hillsides was not just a job, but a mission and a ministry.” He strongly believed that Hillsides is a place where “children can find peace and hope, they blossom, find happiness and they prosper.”

John was appalled that in the early 1970s the Department of Children and Family Services would automatically remove a child from the home if the child was found to be abused or neglected, with no attempt to correct the situation at home since there was no funding available for in-home treatment. He felt strongly that parents wanted to do the right thing by their children, but their personal situations prevented them from being successful. 

In 1981 John became the Executive Director of Hillsides. He now felt that in this role he could speak up and be a strong and active voice for children. The following year, through his leadership, Hillsides was able to secure state funding to sponsor a pilot in-home intervention called Family Preservation. The Hillsides program successfully demonstrated that by going into the home and working with parents it was possible to turn the situation around and prevent the need to remove the child from the home.

Many of the elements that John, a visionary, thought so were so essential to the successful treatment of children who were abused or neglected are now incorporated into our current child welfare system:

  • Evaluating families and assessing children when they enter the system to ensure they received the services they needed – The MAT program was instituted several years ago, through the advocacy of ACHSA
  • Using a team of family members, friends and professionals to determine which program would be best for the child is approach used in Wraparound and other programs
  • Providing in-home services to abused children and their families – which we now provide through several programs, including Family Preservation, Wraparound, FSP 

John was always pushing for new developments and improvements to the system – he always wanted what was best for the kids.

Under John’s leadership Hillsides achieved so many milestones:

  • Built and on-grounds schools managed by the County
  • Opened the Hillsides Education Center
  • Was awarded the LEARN grant, which helped establish school-based programs
  • Created an Infant Toddler Assessment Center
  • Secured a DMH contract in 1990 to support community outreach and later to support day rehabilitation programs
  • Established Family Resource Centers
  • Constructed and opened the Children’s Resource Center
  • Began initiation of RBS with 3 other agencies
  • And built lots of new buildings throughout his tenure

When I think of John, and I have worked with him on several projects over the past years, I think of his passion, his advocacy for children and his tenacity. In a fight, he was always someone you wanted on your side. He cared passionately about the children and he was never afraid to let you know that.
I remember hearing stories of how he would stop during a tour he was giving to a major donor to listen to the complaint of a child about the food he had just eaten for lunch. John described how the children of Hillsides did not quite understand his exact role at the agency, so they decided he was “The Owner”. Initially he tried to explain his role, but then agreed to let them call him by this title. It really was an accurate description: He did indeed “own” all the work that happened at Hillsides and the difference it made in children’s lives. 
John was a passionate advocate who was always fighting for the children and youth that he cared about so much. His retirement was truly the end of an era. We want to thank him for all he contributed to the lives of children and families and to the lives of his colleagues who worked with him to achieve many of the hard-won victories in improving child welfare in Los Angeles County. He is a special and unique individual, whose often gruff exterior hides a warm and passionate heart. 
John: You have made a difference in the lives of thousands of children and families over your almost 40 years at Hillsides! You have also made a difference in the lives of the staff and volunteers of Hillsides who believe passionately about the work. You have been an inspiration to me and to all of us as a visionary and a tireless advocate for children! Thank you!!
It is my great honor to present ACHSA’s first Lifetime Achievement Award to John Hitchcock. Please join me in showing John our appreciation.


One Comment on “Children’s Deaths on the Rise

  1. My sister and I lived there when it was known as the Episcopal Church Home for Children in the 1940's. When I visited in 2003, John Hitchcock treated me like visiting royalty. We spent several hours touring, looking through scrapbooks, meeting residents, and staffers. Since then we have stayed in contact. I am an author. While living there, I read the complete series of Hardy Boys mysteries. Becoming a writer started for me there. John R. Downes, Spokane, Washington

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