LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called Tuesday for a detailed plan to implement recommendations of a state audit finding that child welfare workers fail to act quickly enough to keep children safe, including a strategy for hiring more senior staffers.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger recommended that DCFS Director Bobby Cagle work with the Office of Child Protection and the county’s CEO to analyze the audit recommendations and figure out the cost of implementing them.
In her motion, Barger said the Department of Children and Family Services’ office in Palmdale, in the Fifth District that she represents, struggles more than most to recruit managers. The ratio there is one supervisor to every 7.3 social workers, despite a union agreement that no supervisor should be responsible for managing more than six people.
She suggested the department consider financial bonuses and other incentives to attract employees for the Palmdale office.
The motion to develop a plan was approved without comment by the board and a report is expected back in 60 days. [View the motion here.]
In a review of the entire child welfare agency that was made public last Tuesday, auditors found that children were sometimes left in unsafe and abusive situations for months because investigations lagged and criminal background checks and home inspections weren’t completed before youngsters were placed in new homes. [View the state audit report here.]
In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders, California State Auditor Elaine Howle said DCFS completed roughly three-quarters of all safety and risk assessments on time in fiscal year 2017-18 and failed to ever complete 8-10% of each type of assessment.
“We also found numerous instances in which these assessments were not accurate, including several safety assessments that social workers prepared and submitted without actually visiting the child’s home,” the letter states. “Even if supervisors had identified and corrected many of these issues upon review, we found that they often completed such reviews long after social workers had made decisions regarding children’s safety.”
Social workers failed to consider important risk factors such as past instances of domestic violence or the results of prior DCFS investigations, despite the availability of this information, according to auditors.
The auditors said DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told them an internal review found that some employees weren’t relying on the assessment as decision- making tools but as a bureaucratic extra step. Cagle said training set to roll out next July would help address that issue.
DCFS received more than 167,000 allegations of abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2017-18. Employees are required to complete safety assessments within 48 hours of meeting children in person for the first time and wrap up risk assessments within 30 days.
To manage that workload, the department’s budget increased more than 20% from 2013 to 2017 and hundreds of additional social workers were hired.
But a lack of hard deadlines for reports and limited quality assurance reviews means the department is still falling short by the auditors’ measure. And recruiting for supervisors does not seem to have kept pace with other hires, with managers’ direct reports rising from 5.5 social workers in August 2017 to 6.3 by October 2018, according to the audit.
Auditors recommended complying with a six to one ratio set by union agreement by May 2020. The report also called for mechanisms to better track completion of various investigations, background checks and safety and risk assessments required by law.
In a response to a draft of the audit, dated May 1, Cagle said his agency agreed with the recommendations and was already implementing changes. However, in a follow-up statement the department said some delays are outside the agency’s control.
“Our department fared considerably better than other jurisdictions in California that have an average of 41% of their cases bypassing state deadlines,” the statement said. “Reform is not about a single point in time; true change takes time in order to have a meaningful impact on a system as large and diverse as Los Angeles County’s, and it must be a sustained, continuous process that addresses emerging issues and systemic challenges as they develop. We are committed to doing just that in collaboration with our elected officials and community partners.”
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee ordered the audit last summer, shortly after the torture and killing of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos in Lancaster, allegedly at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Anthony and 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale, whose mother and her boyfriend were convicted of his 2013 torture killing, were both the subject of multiple reports to DCFS and two caseworkers. Two supervisors are awaiting trial on charges of child abuse related to Gabriel’s death.
Auditors reviewed 10 child death cases in which the victims had been the subjects of department referrals and identified “numerous errors of varying levels of severity,” including that social workers failed to interview children away from their parents.
Previous related story: State audit finds L.A. County leaves children at risk for months