Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Monterey County responds to grand jury report - Social services officials disagree with allegation of apparent underreporting of suspected abuse

By JIM JOHNSON - Herald Staff Writer
Just because a girl under 14 seeks pregnancy services doesn't mean she was the victim of child sexual abuse.

That was among the positions taken by county officials in a draft response to the 2011 Monterey County civil grand jury report.

In the response, approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, social services officials disagreed with the grand jury's contention that eligibility workers and medical professionals had "apparently" underreported suspected sexual abuse cases because none of the 24 instances from 2008-10 when girls under 14 sought pregnancy services resulted in a suspected abuse report.

County officials pointed out that mandatory reporters must consider the relative age of the girl's sexual partner, under California law, and that pregnancy of a minor does not by itself constitute the basis of reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse.

County officials argued that the Minor Consent program is a "valuable resource" that "provides an option for youth facing difficult life circumstances." Without the program, they said, girls might not seek treatment. The response said half of all mothers under 18 accessed prenatal care either late or not at all.

The program provides young mothers with access to a clinician, who is responsible for assessing whether a mandated sexual abuse report is required.

Requiring eligibility workers to gather enough information to determine if there is reasonable suspicion of abuse "would be contrary to the design and intent of the program," said the county's response. At the same time, eligibility workers are trained as mandated reporters if minors do offer enough information to indicate reasonable suspicion.

The response read: "The Department of Social and Employment Services recognizes that teen sexuality can be risky and problematic, yet must deal with the reality of its presence in the community. The Department is committed to obeying the laws regarding child abuse and neglect reporting and embracing the value of the Medi-Cal Minor Consent Program as an important resource for youth in assuring they have access to necessary health care and resources that may be necessary for preventing child abuse and addressing sexual assault."

County officials said girls accessing pregnancy services are not necessarily pregnant, but could be seeking everything from contraception to treatment for a sexually transmitted disease.

Other responses

The county's draft response also covered:

· Potential abuse of the welfare food stamp and benefits programs known as CalFresh and CalWorks.

The grand jury suggested that increased outreach to potentially eligible food stamp recipients could result in fraudulent applications. It said county social workers should improve their efficiency without resorting to overtime.

County officials said outreach is an important initiative and the county is among the state's most accurate in processing applications, but occasionally needs to rely on overtime.

The county agreed with the grand jury's contention that more emphasis should be placed on the purchase of fresh, nutritious food through the food stamps program. The county also agreed that some ATMs that accept CalWorks benefit cards are in places inconsistent with the intent of the program, such as the Monterey County Race Place at the county fairgrounds. The ATM there has since been removed.

The response also pointed out that the state is responsible for authorizing which ATMs can accept benefit cards.

· Issues with local juvenile justice programs, including security policies at the Youth Center, the site of inmate escapes last year.

In their response, county probation officials said they had taken steps to "evaluate and strengthen internal security," including "appropriate personnel actions," and made "structural improvements to further secure and strengthen the facility."

Probation chief Manuel Real said the center's fence has been upgraded and cameras and lighting added. He said there would be no more use of front meeting rooms, where the escapes began.

Real said personnel changes were confidential.

· Excessive overtime in the county jail.

In a separate response, Sheriff Scott Miller outlined a series of actions he has taken since taking office in January 2011 to reduce overtime in the county jail.

Those included creation of 12 custody and control specialist positions to replace deputies with lower-paid workers at the jail; implementation of a new timekeeping and scheduling system; and consideration of a new policy limiting the number of hours worked on consecutive days.

Further cost-savings analysis resulted in outsourcing inmate medical services and other measures, he said.

Jim Johnson can be reached at 753-6753 or

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