Wednesday, June 7, 2017
[Humboldt County] Grand jury: Child abuse investigations ‘falling through the gap’
Humboldt County’s Child Welfare Services, school districts and sheriff’s office are letting reports of child neglect and abuse fall through the cracks, according to two grand jury reports released this week.
The reports state county case workers have taken several weeks or even more than a year to respond to reports of abuse filed by schools and law enforcement agencies when the county’s policy is to respond within 24 hours. The grand jury also found that the county does not keep track of how long it takes for their case workers to respond to reports.
“Too often, our children are being neglected and abused by parents and family members, and when mandated reporters make allegations of abuse and neglect to [Child Welfare Services], the system is failing to respond in a timely manner, or to respond at all,” the report states. “... Our children are falling through the gap.”
The grand jury found that school district and sheriff’s office officials expressed frustration at Child Welfare Services’ response times, with some school officials stating they have submitted up to 21 reports for a single child before the county agreed to investigate.
The grand jury also found that school districts and sheriff’s office officials lacked proper training and failed to correctly submit or track their reports to the county and other investigating agencies.
Child Welfare Services is a division of the county Department of Health and Human Services and is responsible for investigating reports of child mistreatment.
“We’re in the early stages of reviewing the report, and will issue the responses requested well within the established timeframe, both to the Grand Jury and to local media,” the department’s Public Information Officer Heather Muller wrote in a Wednesday email to the Times-Standard. “Nothing our community does is more important than keeping children safe, and we will continue to work with our families and partners to improve child welfare.”
The California Attorney General’s Office has been investigating Child Welfare Services for over a year regarding its compliance with child abuse reporting laws, especially as they relate to tribal youth. The investigation was mentioned in the grand jury’s report.
“We could have held back in producing the report, but we felt the public may not be very aware of the depth of the problem even though maybe at some point in the near future the problem may resolve itself through action by the county or a combination of agencies,” grand jury Foreman James Glover said Wednesday.
‘Inexcusable’ response times
As part of its eight-month investigation that ended in May, the grand jury reviewed 50 reports of child abuse received through Child Welfare Services’ hot line service in 2015 and 2016.
“We would have loved to have been able to look at a broader sampling, but our suspicion is there isn’t a broader sample,” Glover said.
The report states these reports revealed the county’s “shockingly slow” response times that it found to be “inexcusable” under the requirements of California’s Child Welfare System Improvement and Accountability Act. Signed into law in 2001, the act requires counties to track and submit information to the state pertaining to their ability to ensure children’s safety, well-being and stability in their living situations.
Of the 50 reports reviewed by the grand jury, Child Welfare Services responded to six reports within 24 hours and 31 reports within two to 14 days, according to the grand jury. The county responded to seven of the reports after two weeks, of which three were responded to after two months and another after more than a year, according to the grand jury. The grand jury could not find any type of county response for six of the reports.
In interviews with Child Welfare Services social workers, the grand jury identified low staffing levels, high case loads, prolonged staff recruitment times, high staff turnover and poor management as contributing factors to the division’s response times. The report states between 10 to 22 social worker positions are currently unfilled.
“Whether through improved staffing or better training, [Child Welfare Services] must improve the timeliness of its response to calls for help for our children,” the grand jury states.
The grand jury states Child Welfare Services received nearly 2,900 reports of abuse or neglect, with the division opening an investigation into about 170 of the reports.
About 1,800 reports were deemed by the county to be unfounded or did not require a response by the division, the grand jury states. Another 1,000 reports were referred to other county services such as marriage and family counseling, according to the grand jury. The division stated that it was not its responsibility to follow up to determine whether the family used the services, according to the grand jury.
The grand jury stated it attempted to obtain documents from the county earlier this year to determine why so many cases were being “evaluated out” and to investigate how quickly the division responded to reports. However, these document requests were denied due to them involving juveniles, according to the report. Attempts to receive the documents with the children’s names redacted were also denied, according to the report, but Glover said that the county eventually provided some documents.
The grand jury acknowledged that the county has taken steps to improve its response times to child abuse reports this year and is undergoing “rapid changes.”
Some of these steps include contracting with UC Davis to improve its programs and setting up a task force with local law enforcement agencies and school districts to discuss and draft policies to improve communications and transparency between the entities.
“We applaud both of these major endeavors,” the grand jury states.
The grand jury recommends the county begin tracking how quickly it responds to reports; streamline its hiring process; include input from other entities about the division’s response times in its reports to the state; and ensure staff are adequately qualified, trained and supervised to receive reports of child abuse.
School, law enforcement concerns
Glover said that the grand jury began drafting the two reports after receiving complaints from school districts about Child Welfare Services’ response times. School and sheriff’s office officials stated Child Welfare Services “often” did not return their calls or call them to obtain more information, according to the grand jury.
“In cases involving possible physical or sexual abuse, law enforcement must be contacted within hours, but the Sheriff’s Office told us they are sometimes called days or weeks after [Child Welfare Services] received the initial report,” the grand jury report states.
One school district official told the grand jury that a Child Welfare Services employee once asked the school to investigate the alleged abuse itself. Other school officials also criticized the sheriff’s office for not answering calls and failing to file reports of their investigations into abuse.
School district officials also claimed that sheriff’s deputies had revealed to families of allegedly abused children that the school had been the entity that filed the reports against them, which the grand jury states would violate state law. The sheriff’s office denied these claims, according to the grand jury.
Deputies interviewed by the grand jury stated that the office had a “big problem” of new deputies and supervisors lacking training on how to handle child abuse investigations.
Sheriff’s office Lt. Ken Swithenbank said Wednesday that the office is still evaluating the grand jury report. Attempts to contact Sheriff William Honsal on Wednesday afternoon were not returned.
Some school district officials admitted to the grand jury that they did not follow child abuse reporting protocols, such as filing a written report of the allegations within 36 hours after calling in its initial report, according to the grand jury. Other school district officials stated they did not track the reports or did not file reports with the district in order to keep their anonymity. The grand jury states this results in the schools being unaware when multiple reports are filed for a single student.
Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Chris Hartley said in a statement to the Times-Standard that he appreciates the grand jury’s thoroughness and is looking forward to developing current partnerships with the county and local law enforcement.
“I appreciate the foundation that has been set between our organizations and know there is tremendous opportunity to foster deeper interagency collaboration in order to continue improving our services on behalf of students,” Hartley said Wednesday. “When we partner, we are stronger, and our students and families directly benefit.”
The sheriff’s office, county Office of Education and the Child Welfare Services division are all required to submit responses to the reports.
May 31, 2017
By Will Houston