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State audit: Welfare systems fail to protect abused, neglected kids

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Child welfare officials say they are reviewing recommendations in a state audit released yesterday that found serious problems with the child welfare system, ranging from registered sex offenders living or working in homes for foster care children to a failure to investigate deaths due to child abuse.

“This report concludes that California can and must provide these children better protection and support,” the Bureau of State Audits report [PDF] stated.

The review of county child welfare systems, which are overseen by the State Department of Social Services, was prompted by the 2008 deaths of several children in the Central Valley, including 10-year-old Seth Ireland, who was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend despite repeated reports to Fresno County's Child Protective Services.

“It is our obligation to ensure these tragedies are never forgotten and that we do everything in our power to ensure the welfare and safety of our children,” Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, said in a statement. He called for the audit in February.

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The report made recommendations and advised the Department of Social Services to use federal criminal databases to ensure that registered sex offenders are not living or working in foster care facilities, and encouraged internal death reviews by county agencies.

“Safety of children is our top priority, and we will review the audit and continue to work with licensed facilities and counties to identify the best ways to ensure the safety of children,” said Michael Weston, a spokesman for the social services department.  

The report examined child welfare services in Alameda, Fresno and Sacramento counties. State officials also planned to analyze data from Los Angeles County, which is home to nearly half of the foster children in the state, but the county refused to release the relevant records. Auditors are slated to issue a separate report on Los Angeles in January 2012.

The state's analysis found a number of problems related to licensing and oversight of foster care facilities and a lack of consistency in reviewing abuse-related deaths.

The most glaring problem, according to auditors, is that the Department of Social Services did not heed a 2008 audit recommendation to use Department of Justice databases to identify “sex offenders who may be inappropriately living or working in its licensed facilities or in the homes of foster children.”

According to the audit, licensed child welfare facilities and foster care homes matched the addresses of 1,000 sex offenders statewide, and 600 of those were considered high risk. But the Department of Social Services said the audit's approach relied on outdated addresses, and a resulting investigation resulted in the revocation or temporary suspension of licenses to eight facilities statewide. Additionally, 31 people either living or working in licensed facilities were ordered to stay away from these foster care homes.

Still, social welfare experts say that licensing of child welfare facilities has been an ongoing concern in California.

“I don’t think it’s surprising,” said Jacquelyn McCroskey, a child welfare professor at USC’s School of Social Work. “I was very happy that they called attention to the licensing because it has been neglected and it really is an essential building block for keeping safe.”

It currently is not illegal for registered sex offenders to live in a foster home, a “loophole that needs to be closed as soon as possible,” said Alisha Gallon, a spokeswoman for Perea, the Fresno assemblyman.

The report also noted that because it is not required by law, some counties did not conduct internal reviews when a child in the care of county protective services dies. About 100 children [PDF] died in California due to abuse or neglect in 2009.

“The report underscores the importance of getting everyone involved in figuring out what happened when a kid dies so we can prevent it from happening again,” said Ed Howard of San Diego’s Children’s Advocacy Institute. “For too long, there has been a lack of accountability and leadership in foster care that has been masked by appeals to protect the privacy interest of kids when in reality, the net result is a lack of accountability, a lack of attention and a lack of demand for reform, which is hurting kids.”

In Alameda County, for example, a case involving a domestic violence victim who had reportedly hit her children was classified as an emotional abuse case by the child welfare agency. A week after a social worker made a home visit, the mother was accused of killing one of her children. The audit cited this case as an example that "underscores the importance of reviewing such child deaths to determine whether opportunities exist to improve policies and procedures to prevent similar tragedies in the future."

“Ultimately, it was a nice ability to get some confirmation of different processes we have in place in Fresno,” such as an internal death review system, said Howard Himes, incoming director of Fresno County’s Children and Family Services. “The recommendations are addressed specifically to the state, not to the county, but we will work closely with the state to implement them, and we look forward to that.”

Perea is considering legislation that would mandate internal reviews of any deaths of children under the care of Child Protective Services, a spokeswoman said.

The audit also found that counties like Alameda do not meet the state standard for ongoing case visits to children’s homes. Officials there acknowledged that making ongoing case maintenance visits was a place where improvements could be made, but “overall, we fared pretty well and we have, over the last five to 10 years, worked on system improvements,” said Sylvia Soublet, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Social Services Agency. “It’s something we do continuously, and we are always looking at where and how we can get better at what we do.”

There has been a notable increase in the use of expensive foster family agencies, the report said, from 18 to 29 percent in the past 12 years. “We estimate that the growth in the percentage of placements with foster family agencies, which have dramatically higher rates than licensed foster homes, has resulted in spending an additional $327 million in foster care payments between 2001 and 2010 – costing an additional $61 million in 2010 alone,” the audit said.

California child welfare agencies received 480,000 allegations of maltreatment of children in 2010 and substantiated 87,000 of these allegations, according to the UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research. About 57,000 children were in out-of-home placements in California as of January 2011. The state estimates that California’s systemwide child welfare budget was about $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2010-11.

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