Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency leaves some youngsters in unsafe and abusive situations for months because social workers fail to consistently and quickly complete abuse and neglect investigations, according to a report released Tuesday by the state auditor.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, was one of the legislators who called for the audit in the wake of the 2013 torture killing of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Lancaster. Despite multiple reports of abuse, the Department of Children and Family Services failed to remove Gabriel from the home where he lived with his mother and her boyfriend, who were ultimately convicted of his murder.
“This audit proves what we’ve suspected for a long time — we need to fix things at the Department of Children and Family Services to protect the most vulnerable kids in our community,” Lackey said. “We need major changes at the department to protect children and make sure reports of abuse don’t fall through the cracks.”
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.”
DCFS received more than 167,000 allegations of abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2017-18, according to the audit.
Even as budget increases allowed the department to hire more social workers and reduce caseloads, the agency failed to comply with state requirements, including home inspections and criminal background checks of relatives considered for foster placement, the audit found.
The auditor said DCFS doesn’t set specific deadlines for reports and has limited quality assurance reviews. In addition, the agency lacks a clear process for implementing recommendations that arise out of child death investigations.
The audit report recommended setting specific time frames for completing investigations, background checks and home inspections and creating various tracking mechanisms to monitor the work. Other recommendations include improving supervision, in part by reducing the number of social workers assigned to each supervisor to six by May 2020.
Six is the number specified in the agency’s union contract and the department has told the Board of Supervisors that it aims to bring the ratio down to five.
In a response to a draft of the audit, dated May 1, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said his agency agreed with the recommendations and was already implementing changes.
The department issued a statement Tuesday saying it was grateful to Lackey, former Sen. Ricardo Lara and Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, for their leadership on child welfare and calling the audit report recommendations “thoughtful.”
The goal is to complete investigations in 30 days, but some delays are outside the agency’s control, including those related to obtaining medical records, trying to locate families that avoid contact with social workers and coordinating with other agencies, according to the DCFS statement.
“Our department fared considerably better than other jurisdictions in California that have an average of 41% of their cases bypassing state deadlines,” the statement says.
In addition to implementing other recommendations, DCFS plans to create a Quality Improvement division to conduct “comprehensive assessments of referrals and cases from all its regional offices.” The division will also evaluate the roles of supervisors and managers.
The department is also ramping up efforts to support LGBTQ+ youth, who represent nearly one in five foster youth and have proven to be more vulnerable to poverty, homelessness and juvenile justice involvement.
“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 agency stated.