Jewish Journal

Watching Big Brother

Jewish Big Brothers is forced to take a new direction.

by Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Posted on Jan. 24, 2002 at 6:59 pm

In the culmination of what has been a tumultuous year for the Jewish Big Brothers (JBB) of Los Angeles, Executive Director Jeff Kahn stepped down from his position last week to serve as interim director until a replacement is found.

The decision followed an executive board meeting on Jan. 15.

Since he began at the agency in April 2000, Kahn's supporters credit him with turning the agency around financially; his critics have accused him of tarnishing the 87-year-old agency's sterling reputation for social services.

Jewish Big Brothers currently serves more than 150 children who have lost a father figure (most commonly through divorce or death) by matching them with Jewish men for biweekly meetings. The agency boasts a success rate of relationships lasting twice as long as the national average. The national average for Big Brother matches is two years; JBB's often last for four.

Through their programs at Camp Max Strauss and their Sports Buddies programs, the agency estimates they affect the lives of nearly 2,000 children each year. There are currently 50 boys and girls on the waiting list.

Kahn's direction of the agency caused grievances to be filed against him with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 800. Brad Rosenberg, head of the agency's board, acknowledged that while "Jeff may not be a warm and fuzzy guy," his business-minded approach to the agency has improved efficiencies and helped with cost reductions, putting the agency in better fiscal shape and enabling it to offer services to more children.

"While we've made significant progress with the reorganization of Jewish Big Brothers/Camp Max Straus, I believe that the interests of the agency are best served by my returning to interim status," Kahn said. "In this way, I can more effectively respond to the needs of our board of trustees."

Kahn, a CPA and attorney, was brought into the agency by Sheri Bluebond, a board member who had worked with Kahn in the past to fix troubled companies. "We need to be accountable to our donors," Kahn told The Journal in a meeting.

Kahn's tenure has resulted in a massive upheaval in the JJB social worker staff, whose ranks have been reduced 40 percent over the past year through voluntary and nonvoluntary layoffs.

One accusation Kahn has leveled against the social workers is that they carried caseloads of only 15-20 cases, while the national average hovers between 50-60. Kahn also said that before his arrival, there was no accountability process, cases were listed as active by social workers who had not had contact with their clients in over two years; that social workers kept inaccurate records, and that his authority was rejected by the social worker staff, members of which largely hold master of social work degrees (a rarity among Big Brother agencies, which often only require a bachelor's degree for case workers) because he had no background in social work.

The social workers say their case load reflects the comprehensive service JBB provides. While a social worker may only serve 15-20 cases, each of those cases often involves the management of three relationships: the big brother, the parent (who is often given individual therapy) and the child, resulting in an actual load of 45-60 individual cases each social worker must manage.

If there was an increase in the caseload, argued social workers at the agency who requested anonymity, the quality of social services would decrease dramatically, affecting the unusually high success rate of the program.

The turnover of social work staff also worried many of the social workers involved because of the particular vulnerabilities of the children in the program, who have issues with loss and rejection. "The children we serve are particularly sensitive to the changing of adults in thier lives," said one social worker who requested annonymity.

Exact figures for the operating budget and estimated debt of the agency before Kahn's tenure were not given to the Jewish Journal by JBB.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though, as many hail the November hiring of Judith Miller as the new director of social work. Miller is a graduate of Columbia University's social work program and is a veteran in both social service agencies and management. A favorite of many of the social workers who have worked with the JBB program, she is also seen as an effective and efficient manager. There is hope that she might be able to provide the balance between financial integrity and effective social work that the agency needs.

"It's a wonderful program that really changes people's lives," said a social worker who left the agency last year, "The program just needs to decide what its priorities are and what it wants to be in the future."

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