After a two-year investigation found Humboldt County’s child welfare system failed in its duty to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, the California Attorney General’s Office is giving the county a tight time frame to correct decades-old systemic problems.
The state investigation that began in 2015 found that some child abuse reports fell through the cracks and went without investigation for weeks or months at a time as a result of poor communication between social workers and mandated child abuse reporters such as law enforcement; lack of training; poor case management; and large case workloads.
These issues have been repeatedly documented by the Humboldt County grand jury since at least the early 1980s. But with the California Department of Justice and court system now monitoring and mandating reforms, county officials said the changes must be completed.
A court agreement reached this month mandates the county Child Welfare Services division and county Sheriff’s Office implement a list of reforms, several of which have already been made, according to county officials.
“We’re making progress on that, but we’re not saying we’re there yet,” Child Welfare Services program manager Alison Phongsavath said. “We’re not saying that the practice is where we want it to be or need it to be and we are deeply invested in getting it there with our partners.”
Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the agreement will “keep the spotlight on Humboldt County.”
“California’s child protection laws require agencies to take immediate action when they learn about potential abuse or neglect. The institutions of Humboldt County entrusted to protect children failed them,” Becerra said in a statement earlier this month. “What can be more important than public agencies performing their duties to safeguard the security and welfare of our kids? We owe it to our children to enforce these laws vigorously.”
Mary Ann Hansen, executive director of First 5 Humboldt, the Humboldt County Children and Families Commission, said she was happy the county was moving forward with plans to ensure prompt and coordinated responses to reports regarding the welfare of children.
“While we are working to improve the child welfare system, we need to also increase the availability of preventative services and programs which would help reduce the high rate of child abuse and neglect referrals in Humboldt,” she said in an email to the Times-Standard. “By adequately addressing prevention with evidence-informed practices, we can begin to reduce these rates. Fostering the wellbeing of our children and families is not only the most compassionate thing — the right thing — to do, it also makes the best economic sense. What better investment can we make than in our young children?”
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform executive director Richard Wexler, who has been outspoken against placing children into the foster care system, has been critical of the county’s Child Welfare Services Division in the past.
He said Friday that while some reforms in the state settlement will be “marginally useful,” he said the settlement ignores the county’s high foster care placement rate, which was more than double than the state average in recent years.
“Humboldt County Child Welfare Services has become a machine for needlessly tearing apart families,” Wexler wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “The settlement is devoted largely to making it a better-oiled machine.”
County Department of Health and Human Services public information officer Heather Muller said in response that the settlement focuses specifically on “ensuring the safety of children who are the subject of referrals to CWS, and that is work we will be pursuing.”
“The agreement does not extend to the sometimes necessary removal of children from their home for the purpose of keeping them safe, although that is one part of the work CWS does,” Muller said. “Our primary focus remains on strengthening families and moving systems upstream so that we have fewer referrals and fewer children in care.”
The Attorney General’s Office states it fully expects the county to comply with the agreement. If the county does not, the state can seek to find the county in violation of the court order or potentially seek further consequences such as finding the county in contempt of court, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Child Welfare Services receives thousands of reports of alleged child abuse and neglect each year, but the Attorney General’s Office found not all reports were investigated or investigated as quickly as state law mandates.
Child Welfare Services is required by law to immediately investigate a report in person if there may be an imminent danger to the child or within 10 days for all other cases. The investigation must be completed within 30 days at which time a final decision on whether to open a case must be made.
State investigators found that the county failed to meet these deadlines for a substantial amount of reports in past years.
Between 2010 and 2015, more than half of all reports that were investigated by the division took 63 days or more to close, “with a number of referrals that were left open for years,” according to court documents.
The county is now being required to complete investigations for all 436 of its open reports within the next year with benchmarks being set every three months.
About a third of the open reports pertain to people who have moved out of the county, according to Muller. Other reports were investigated and resolved, but the documentation demonstrating that was never filed in their case system, Phongsavath said.
“In no way are we saying that all of these cases are fine, look away,” Muller said. “We’re saying that some of those cases were this … that a considerable portion of them were not emergency situations.”
The state is mandating the sheriff’s office and Child Welfare Services make several changes in the near future, including:
• creating a 24/7 emergency response system for child abuse reports;
• mandating social workers and investigators share and document reports in a timely manner;
• requiring supervisors to review all reports on a weekly basis to ensure they are being handled properly;
• requiring tribal representatives to be present in investigations involving children who are members of tribes or eligible to be;
• creating a social worker hiring plan and workload study;
• mandatory yearly trainings; and
• creating a community task force.
A third-party monitor — paid for by the county — will oversee the county’s progress over the next three years and report back to the Attorney General’s Office.
These changes are meant to address turnover of social workers, high case workloads, lack of training by sheriff’s deputies and frustrations by mandatory reporters like sheriff’s deputies and teachers about lack of response to reports.
Sheriff’s Office Detective Scott Hicks said he has been the office’s liaison with Child Welfare Services since January 2016 — about two months after the Attorney General’s Office’s investigation began. Hicks and Phongsavath said many of the reforms have already been made and have shown favorable results.
“Honestly in the past there was a decent amount of animosity between [Child Welfare Services] and the sheriff’s office,” Hicks said. “Through this we worked together and are moving toward working well together in the future.
“… We’re at a point where we can say everything is focused on the kids now and that we don’t have any cracks,” he continued.
Hicks said the animosity stemmed from deputies not being able to contact social workers and each side not understanding the other’s role. Part of the communication breakdown was caused by the two agencies cross-reporting by fax and by phone, Hicks said. Hicks said they now use an email system that allows him to track all the reports that come through their office.
A memorandum of understanding between the sheriff’s office and Child Welfare Services also calls for the agencies to create an electronic system to make, share and receive cross-reports by August 2019.
Prior to February 2017, child abuse reports to Child Welfare Services were answered by clerical workers who would forward the information to social workers. The Attorney General’s Office states in its court documents said this change was implemented shortly after it found that mandatory reporters were still not able to reach screeners to make their report. As as result, Phongsavath said that social workers now answer calls directly.
The county is now working to have social workers available 24/7 to answer emergency calls, which the state is mandating to be implemented by mid-March. Emergency calls are already being taken 24/7, Phongsavath said, but through the use of an answering service.
“Right now we have an intermediary answering service that takes the call and patches it through to the social worker or supervisor, and there have been misses with that,” she said.
The agreement also seeks to address the turnover of social workers and the case workloads. Currently, the county has 77 social worker positions for child welfare services with 13 vacancies, according Muller. There are currently no vacancies in the 15 supervisor positions, according to Phongsavath.
The state is mandating that the county to create a plan to increase it staffing levels to where it can operate the 24/7 emergency response system and then meet those goals within a year.
The county Department of Health and Human Services has been contracting with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency since June 2017 for training and assistance with the system reforms. The Board of Supervisors is set to consider an amended contract — mandated by the state — on Tuesday that will increase the contract from two years to three years and includes a workload study among other reforms.
The county would pay $783,000 for the contract that will be paid for through a combination of federal, state and local funds with no anticipated impact to the county’s General Fund, according to the staff report.
A copy of the court agreement can be found online at bit.ly/2EwEvUO.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.