Wednesday, June 7, 2017
[Humboldt County] Honsal, Hartley speak out on grand jury report
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said communications between his office and Humboldt County Child Welfare Services division have “absolutely failed over the last couple of years” to respond quickly enough to reports of local child abuse and neglect, but said improvements are in the works.
Honsal told the Times-Standard on Thursday that while his office has been working with Child Welfare Services to address communication issues, case workers are still dropping the ball.
“Child Welfare, when they get a call of a potential crime, they don’t immediately take up the phone and call us and say, ‘There is a neglect issue right now. There is someone being neglected.’ Sometimes those reports wait weeks,” Honsal said. “We can’t do that. When there is a suspected crime, we want to get an immediate phone call. That’s when our deputies need to roll out there.
“If there is a suspected injury, the injury is going to start healing from that moment on, so we need to get there to confirm what happened,” Honsal continued. “That communication piece has failed, that has absolutely failed over the last couple of years.”
Honsal’s comments come after the grand jury released two reports this week that blasted Child Welfare Services for its handling of reports of child abuse and neglect in recent years. The county Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Child Welfare Services, told the Times-Standard on Wednesday via email that it would respond to media questions after it filed its responses to the grand jury reports. Responses are due within 60 to 90 days of the reports being received.
Part of the grand jury’s second report outlined concerns voiced by local school districts and sheriff’s office officials that Child Welfare Services was not responding quickly enough to reports of child mistreatment or just not responding altogether. But the grand jury also found school officials and sheriff’s deputies violated state child abuse reporting laws.
Both Honsal and the county’s top educational official questioned some of the grand jury’s findings, stating that each agency consistently provides child abuse response training to their employees.
Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Chris Hartley said Friday that the county’s Department of Health and Human Services and local school districts have been holding monthly meetings for several years to discuss relevant topics between the two agencies, but stated that child abuse reporting issues have not been specifically discussed at these meetings. Hartley said the grand jury’s report provides an opportunity to open those discussions.
“What we’re trying to do is truly improve our interagency partnerships,” Hartley said Friday. “A report like this gives us an opportunity to even more seriously engage in conversion, more seriously engage about how each organization works, how we can improve our communication for the best interests of our students.”
Steve Volow, executive of Humboldt County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children — CASA — said Friday that the county Board Of Supervisors needs to take further action by hiring an independent consultant to analyze an appropriate response to issues raised by the grand jury reports.
“The onus and accountability to correct this problem rests with the Board of Supervisors with a goal of Humboldt County being one of the best counties not one of the worst for children to grow up in,” Volow said. “Problems of this size and complexity don’t improve with Band-Aid type approaches or internal problem solving. I encourage everybody in the community to implore upon the supervisors to prioritize the implementation of a comprehensive plan based on independent analysis, to move Humboldt County from one of the worst rated counties for a child to grow up in to one of the best.”
School district concerns
The grand jury’s investigations into the Child Welfare Services division began after multiple school district superintendents expressed “high levels of frustration” about the county’s response times to their child abuse reports. Officials from unspecified districts are quoted in the reports stating that Child Welfare Services did not return calls, told them to contact the sheriff’s office instead, told them that reported incidents were not within the county’s jurisdiction, or told them that the school should investigate the issue itself.
According to the grand jury, school officials’ most common comment about the division’s reporting hotline was that it was “totally worthless.”
When the county did choose to open a case, school officials told the grand jury, county social workers often did not contact the school to gather more information or inform the school on the progress of the investigation.
“School personnel told us that they felt as they continued to report on a certain child or family (sometimes as many as 6 [to] 21 times), and [Child Welfare Services] finally agreed to investigate, the situation had seriously deteriorated over the months that passed,” the grand jury report states.
School districts stated the turnover of county social workers also presented an issue, stating that it was especially problematic when new social workers were unaware that certain children had multiple abuse reports filed about them.
But school district officials also told the grand jury that they had issues with following the state’s mandatory reporting laws. As the title suggests, mandated reporters — which include all local school district employees, bus drivers and law enforcement officers, among others — are required by law to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. These reports are supposed to be made to local law enforcement or the county child welfare department, though Honsal said that both agencies should be notified.
After making the initial call, mandated reporters are then required to file a written report within 36 hours.
The grand jury states some school districts admitted that they did not always follow these requirements and did not keep track of the reports that were filed.
Volow said CASA volunteers are also mandated reporters. He said the written report is not more arduous to fill out than it is to make the initial call to law enforcement or a child welfare agency, and often encourages his volunteers to write the report first.
“It’s pretty simple to just fill in the form about what you’re going to say on the phone,” he said.
Hartley said that within the past few years, all school district employees were made mandated reporters where before only certain certified employees were. He stated this was a good decision overall and that the district holds yearly trainings on mandated reporting laws and responsibilities for all district employees. Hartley said they are also setting up training dates for substitute teachers.
“I don’t think it’s a widespread problem,” Hartley said about the grand jury’s findings. “I think it’s an important point to reemphasize the critical nature of making sure you follow the mandate all the way through to the written report. Just to make the call is certainly not enough.”
Child Welfare Services staff interviewed by the grand jury dismissed the school districts’ complaints, according to the report, stating that many did know how to properly fill out the reports or understand the criteria needed to file a report.
However, the grand jury reviewed 250 reacted child abuse and neglect reports submitted by the school districts. None were filled out inaccurately or inappropriately, according to the grand jury. Hartley said this finding reinforces his statement that the district’s reporting issues were not a pervasive issue for local school districts.
Sheriff’s office concerns
As a former Humboldt County Child Abuse Services Team investigator with the district attorney’s office and a mandated reporter instructor at the College of the Redwoods police academy, Honsal said he found some of the grand jury’s report’s findings to be “shocking.”
“It blows me away because I felt we have made lots of strides in the past,” Honsal said. “We do what’s best for the child in any given moment. It’s our job to protect the children because the children can’t protect themselves.”
Deputies interviewed by the grand jury stated there was a “big problem” within the department, in that new deputies and supervisors needed more training on how to deal with child abuse and neglect cases. The deputies also told the grand jury that these concerns were raised to administrators, “but without proper resolution,” according to the report.
Honsal said that he questioned this finding and said he is not aware of any such concerns being raised. Honsal said all deputies are trained both in the academy and in field training to recognize cases of child abuse and how to handle them.
“I think what’s a big problem is there are so many child abuse cases,” Honsal said. “The fact is we are overwhelmed by taking so many child abuse cases. That is the bigger issue here. Our deputies need more support and more help.”
UC Berkeley’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project data shows that Humboldt County had nearly 2,200 allegations of child abuse raised in 2016 — 81 allegations for every 1,000 children in the county. The state average is about 54.2 allegations per 1,000 children, according to the data.
School districts also raised concerns about sheriff’s office investigators, stating that the sheriff’s office had told them they did not have enough personnel to investigate their report, did not file a report after their investigation and did not answer calls.
Honsal said that deputies only file written reports when there is suspected child abuse, but not when deputies find the claims to be unsubstantiated or unfounded. The grand jury states that the sheriff’s office policy manual section 330.5 states that deputies have to file written reports regardless of whether the findings were unsubstantiated. Attempts to contact Honsal for clarification on Friday evening were not immediately returned.
School districts also claimed that deputies would reveal them to be the source of the child abuse reports to the family of the allegedly abused or neglected child.
“Sheriff’s deputies justified their responses, stating that the family could easily figure out the source of the allegation on their own,” the grand jury report states.
Honsal said deputies are taught in their training that revealing the identity of a mandated report is a misdemeanor offense. He said any violation of this law “will not be tolerated.”
Honsal said he thinks that these incidents are infrequent and that the vast majority of deputies are not revealing the sources of the reports.
While Honsal acknowledges that staffing issues and high turnover at Child Welfare Services has been a major contributor to the communications issues, he states that there needs to be improvements. Honsal said he has been meeting with Child Welfare Services officials and said they are working to form a memorandum of understanding to ensure any reports of child abuse are reported to law enforcement within 24 hours, if not immediately.
“I think with staffing I think it’s gotten worse, but I think we’re at a point now where we are communicating and talking about how to make it better,” Honsal said. “The excuses that may have been said in the past are not going to be tolerated anymore. There is no reason why we can’t communicate better.”
The grand jury report applauded Child Welfare Services for setting up a task force this year with law enforcement and school districts to improve communications, as well as for contracting with UC Davis to improve its programs.
June 2, 2017
By Will Houston