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State Auditor Elaine Howle, left, says she will look at the policies and procedures used by CPS agencies to determine when to remove a child from a home.

California state auditor to examine child welfare offices

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2013 - 6:45 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 7:14 am

A California legislative committee requested an audit of child welfare agencies Wednesday after two lawmakers accused county officials of bungling recent cases, including one in Sacramento.

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, criticized social workers for allegedly violating the rights of a Sacramento County couple in April when they removed a 5-month-old boy who a doctor said needed heart surgery.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, complained that social workers failed to remove an 8-year-old Palmdale boy before he was beaten to death last month, despite numerous past complaints about abuse.

Though Donnelly said Child Protective Services officials were too aggressive and Gatto said they weren't aggressive enough, the stories contain a common thread, said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.

"Behind the concerns of both Assembly members is a concern about whether CPS is using its extraordinary powers to take children in a manner that is wise, accountable and not arbitrary," Howard said.

Besides testimony from lawmakers and the mother of the 5-month-old Sacramento County boy, about 60 other people asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee for an investigation into child welfare practices. Many wore T-shirts with pictures of children they said were victims of the system.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said she will review the policies and procedures CPS agencies use to determine when to remove a child from a home.

The panel asked Howle to select three counties to audit. She said she will consider factors such as the number of abuse complaints and other factors that indicate potential problems within a county's child welfare agency.

She said she used similar criteria to select counties for an audit of CPS agencies two years ago, ultimately focusing on those in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Alameda and Fresno counties. That audit focused on placement of abused and neglected children in foster homes, while the upcoming one will focus on investigations of abuse and neglect, she said.

Sacramento and Los Angeles counties have a long history with the types of problems that will fall under Howle's scope, Howard said.

"We need to know that policies and procedures exist and are followed," he said. "What we know from L.A. County and what we know from Sacramento County is that they are not always in place or they are not always followed."

Sacramento County has been the subject of complaints from both ends of the child welfare spectrum. Over the years, dozens of children have died after the agency handled reports they had been subject to prior abuse and neglect.

At the same time, the Sacramento agency has had one of the state's highest rates of removing children from homes.

Sacramento County had the biggest contingent of people who addressed the committee on Wednesday. They spoke about children who they believe were wrongly removed or who were left in harm's way.

The testimony of Sacramento County resident Anna Nikolayev seemed to upset legislators the most. Law enforcement officials took her baby boy, Sammy, from her home after she and her husband removed the boy from a Sutter hospital where a doctor had recommended heart surgery.

"You can't break into my house and take my child," she said, crying. "They ripped my child out of my arms."

The committee's chairman, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, apologized to her "on behalf of the state."

The Nikolayevs left with their son because they wanted a second opinion at another local hospital, according to Gatto. After CPS took action, a judge ordered a third opinion at Stanford University Medical Center, and the boy underwent heart surgery, according to News 10 in Sacramento.

In a written statement, CPS spokeswoman Laura McCasland said the agency could not speak directly about the case. But, she said, the law requires the agency to take action when a child's health is at risk. Social workers rely heavily on the advice of medical professionals in determining whether to remove a child from parental custody in such circumstances, she added.

Donnelly, a conservative Republican, has framed the Sacramento County case as an overreach by government. In an email to supporters after Wednesday's hearing, he began by writing, "Dear Fellow Patriot," and referred to the county's CPS as "an overzealous agency."

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said the Nikolayevs' story suggests the case was mishandled by hospital employees and police, and not just CPS.

Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.

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