At least four Sacramento children were critically injured and two have died of suspected abuse or neglect in the first four months of this year as budget cuts batter local social services programs, The Bee has learned.
Collectively, the cases worry child advocates, who fear that deep cuts and layoffs at Sacramento County's Child Protective Services – with more to come – may be endangering the county's most vulnerable children.
As the agency restructures itself, making hard choices about who gets served, the strain is being felt by others who help needy families – from law enforcement to the Children's Receiving Home of Sacramento.
For children, the stakes are high.
"I just think there is going to be a much higher potential for bad outcomes," said Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli. "It's very troubling to me."
The cuts also have resurrected a long-standing debate in Sacramento County over whether the child protection agency should – or can afford to – emphasize child safety over "family preservation."
In 1996, following the highly publicized murder of 3-year-old Adrian Conway, CPS was accused of keeping too many dysfunctional families together. Shifting to a child safety emphasis, as the Board of Supervisors then mandated, led social workers to remove more children from their homes.
Although official CPS policy has not changed, some suspect that current budget pressures are pushing the pendulum back toward family preservation.
"Certainly, the budget circumstances we face place greater pressure on our ability to provide an appropriate level of safety regarding children," said board Chairman Roger Dickinson. "But we're also working very hard to offset the budget difficulties with other measures to preserve that necessary level of child safety."
Last July, the county cut 283 CPS positions. At least 40 more are proposed for elimination this summer. In all, that will mean at least 140 fewer social workers.
To cope with reductions, CPS hotline workers have been trained to weed out calls that don't meet the strict definition of abuse or neglect.
Where once emergency response workers checked out situations that "just didn't sound good," the new protocol for opening a case is stricter, CPS Director Laura Coulthard recently told the Board of Supervisors.
Last fall, CPS also closed 1,277 cases of children determined to be at low or moderate risk of harm.
Together, the changes create a grim reality for troubled families. How many will be bypassed who should be under scrutiny? How many children will have their cases prematurely closed – if opened at all?
"Children are going to die," said Robert Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Sacramento Child Advocates, whose attorneys represent children in dependency court.
Shelter funding shrinks
Fallout from the agency's cutbacks extends well beyond the halls of CPS.
This week, top officials at the Children's Receiving Home of Sacramento distributed a letter saying the facility was "in serious danger" of closing.
The 98-bed home serves as an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children and is the only facility of its kind in the county.
David Ballard, chief executive officer of the home, said it is losing about $200,000 a month in state and local reimbursements because fewer children are being brought in.
The letter, which Ballard co-signed, cites "CPS' current policy of keeping as many children as possible out of foster care regardless of the dangers involved."
"As a result, we are admitting less than half the number of children as a year ago – another severe drop in revenue that directly affects our ability to function."
On top of that, CPS, which has contracted with the home for decades, proposes cutting its subsidy by $450,000, starting July 1.
CPS confirmed that proposal. If supervisors approve the cut, that subsidy will fall to about $270,000.
Ballard said the Receiving Home already has reduced staff by a third and is cutting expenses wherever possible. But some fixed costs can't be trimmed, such as the expense of running a medical clinic, without jeopardizing the needs of the children.
"It's an unconscionable cut for us," he said.
Little help for families
Details about the six dead and injured children so far this year are scant, since the county is legally required to release only minimal information in suspected abuse and neglect cases. But all six were under age 5, the highest-risk group.
All were in the care of a parent or legal guardian, according to documents filed by the county with the state Department of Social Services. None were in foster care or an out-of-home placement.
The dead children included a 5-month-old girl and 3-year-old boy. No arrests have been made in the girl's death on Jan. 18, but Sacramento police have arrested the father and stepmother of 3-year-old Jeremiah McRath.
The toddler, who had no CPS history, died in the hospital March 25 of head and other injuries, allegedly inflicted by the couple as they disciplined him. Both face murder charges.
The CPS histories of the other children are unknown, although sources say the family of one had been involved with the agency.
While concerned about safety, Wilson and others commend the CPS director for embarking on a rigorous reorganization plan that she promises will put "children and families at the center of everything we do." At the same time, Coulthard has vowed to make the operation more efficient by streamlining procedures and emphasizing accountability.
The agency has improved its timely response to both immediate- and 10-day referrals, matching or exceeding state goals, CPS data shows.
However, the agency has struggled to make timely in-person contact with children and families, falling from 92 percent in December 2008 to 84 percent a year later – below the statewide goal.
Law enforcement agencies also are feeling the budget pressure.
The Sheriff's Child Abuse Bureau has shrunk from 10 detectives at this time last year to seven. Sgt. Jeff Reinl, who heads the bureau, said he was forced this week to tell a mother that he couldn't assign a detective to look into her abuse allegation.
Like others, he worries about CPS' inability amid staffing cuts to help troubled families before their problems escalate.
"The problem is, there's no money for that prevention component," said Reinl, who serves on both the CPS Oversight Committee and the county's Child Death Review Team.
"That support for families in crisis is kind of gone."
Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel said that, as the county cuts social services, courts and probation, the workload naturally rolls onto law enforcement agencies – which face their own budgetary challenges.
"It's scary," he said. "Those at-risk people are the ones we're running into, and there is limited help."