Wednesday, June 7, 2017
[Humboldt County] Grand jury report IDs county as ‘focal point’ of concern in child abuse investigations
The first of two Humboldt County Grand Jury reports released this week states the county agency tasked with investigating thousands of reports of child abuse and neglect each year is failing in its duties and could be placing children at risk.
“It’s not entirely [Humboldt County Child Welfare Services’] problem, but they sure are the focal point of it,” grand jury Foreman Jim Glover said to the Times-Standard on Wednesday. “How a complaint about a suspected child abuse situation gets handled all funnels through Child Welfare Services. It all eventually has to funnel through them.”
Grand jury Recommendations
The Humboldt County Grand Jury made the following recommendations regarding the county Child Welfare Services division’s response times to reports of child abuse and neglect:
• The county Department of Health and Human Services should begin tracking how long it takes for Child Welfare Services case workers to respond to reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. The department should submit this information to the state as part of its Child Welfare Services’ System Improvement Plan for 2012-17 and continue to monitor to it as a way to measure their performance.
• The DHHS should begin monitoring how mandatory reporters — such as school teachers and law enforcement officers — judge the Child Welfare Services division’s performance on supporting the safety of children. The department also should include these reviews in its Child Welfare Services’ System Improvement Plan 2012-2017
• The DHHS should update its policies and procedures for receiving reports of child abuse and neglect to show that the department now connects callers directly to social workers.
• The Child Welfare Services division should review the qualifications and training of its staff in handling reports of child abuse and neglect and provide “proper supervision” to ensure staff is competent in these duties.
Source: Humboldt County Grand Jury
The first of two grand jury reports released this week states that despite the county expending about $6.3 million annually to identify and help abused, neglected and emotionally harmed children, the county Child Welfare Services division is allowing reports of child abuse to fall through the cracks and currently has no monitoring system in place to ensure cases are responded to in a timely manner.
County Department of Health and Human Services Public Information Officer Heather Muller said Thursday that the department will respond to questions from the media after it files its responses to the grand jury reports.
After the California Legislature and governor approved the Child Welfare System Improvement and Accountability Act in 2001, the state held counties responsible for improving the well-being of their children and preventing abuse.
The act — which took effect in 2004 — also implemented an oversight system in which counties self-assessed their child welfare services and then collaborated with local partners to create a list of priorities and goals as part of a county system improvement plan.
Prior to this act, the California Department of Social Services monitored county child welfare programs’ performance based on whether a child received a particular type of service, but not on whether the service actually benefitted the child, according to the grand jury.
The grand jury states that the county has been compliant with the law in the sense that it has submitted improvement plans to the state. The county plans seek to reduce the rate of abuse and neglect, reduce the severity of abuse complaints and allegations, reduce foster care placement and reduce the amount of time children are placed in foster care, according to the grand jury.
Humboldt County is also designated as a differential response county, according to the grand jury. The grand jury states this designation does not require the county to send a case worker in person to determine how it will respond to a report of child abuse or neglect, and instead can respond to cases in three different ways:
• When a case worker determines the report does not meet state criteria of abuse or neglect, families can be assigned to other local community services to address other underlying family problems. Child Welfare Services is required to select a service provider for cases involving children ages 5 and younger.
• When a report does not meet state criteria of abuse or neglect, Child Welfare Services can choose targeted services to help families address other issues.
• When a report shows a child is not safe, Child Welfare Services must take action to ensure the child is safe regardless of whether the family gives consent.
The Times-Standard sent a series of questions to the California Department of Social Services on Thursday morning regarding their requirements for counties and is expected to receive responses today.
Lack of responses
The grand jury states that one of Humboldt County Child Welfare Services’ policies is to respond to reports of child abuse or neglect within 24 hours after receiving the call, but the grand jury states that division is repeatedly failing to adhere to this.
“During its discussion with Humboldt County school superintendents, the [grand jury] found that, under current practice, the children of Humboldt county are not being adequately served by [Child Welfare Services].”
The grand jury reviewed 50 reports received through Child Welfare Services’ hot line service between 2015 and 2016. Only six reports were responded to within 24 hours. Another six were not responded to at all, according to the grand jury.
Thirty-one reports were responded to within two to 14 days, according to the grand jury, and some responses took even longer. Seven of the reports took over two weeks to receive a county response, of which three were responded to after two months and one took more than a year, according to the grand jury.
“Such a lack of timeliness is inexcusable, assuming that [Child Welfare Services] is following the letter of the law, and has implemented the required checks and balances,” the grand jury report states, adding that the checks and balances include adhering to its own protocols for responding to reports.
The grand jury further states the county’s response time to reports are not included in reviews of its overall performance.
“Without a standard measurement of response time, [Child Welfare Services] is not able to determine if their processes are meeting the requirement of the intake procedure,” the report states. “Our children are falling through the gap.”
The Times-Standard has reached out to the California Department of Social Services for comment on the grand jury’s findings.
The grand jury attempted to obtain Child Welfare Service documents to determine why more than half of the nearly 2,900 child abuse and neglect reports the division received in 2015 and 2016 were found to not warrant further investigation by the county, “mostly without personal contact with reporters or alleged victims,” the grand jury report states.
The grand jury states its two requests to receive Child Welfare Service documents were denied by the division between December 2016 and February 2017. The requests were denied because the requested documents included information about juveniles and could not be disclosed without an order from the presiding superior court judge, the grand jury stated.
The grand jury states it reported the denial to the presiding judge.
“There was no maliciousness in keeping the information from us except in interpretation of privacy,” grand jury Foreman Jim Glover said of the denial.
Shortly after their second request was denied in February, the grand jury states it learned that Child Welfare Services changed how it receives child abuse reports by connecting hot line callers directly to social workers. The grand jury also states Child Welfare Services officials said they were meeting with local law enforcement agencies and school districts.
The grand jury states it was not able to verify these claims, but said it is “hopeful that the new attention to initial reporters will have a positive effect on response times.”
June 1, 2017
By Will Houston