Q&A: CPS head is often asked why she would want that job

03/19/2012 12:00 AM

03/19/2012 10:04 AM

Running a Child Protective Services agency would be difficult under the best of circumstances. The agency is responsible for abused and neglected children who often find themselves in life-threatening conditions.

Running CPS in Sacramento County comes with even more problems, including a staff cut by a third a few years ago and a widely publicized history of internal troubles at the agency.

All of which raises a question of Michelle Callejas, who became head of the agency in December: Why did she want the job?

"A lot of people have asked me that question," she said with a laugh.

Callejas, 48, said her previous jobs in human services at the county and a nonprofit agency have made her committed to the cause of children and families. She also hopes her leadership experience will pay off at CPS, where she replaces Laura Coulthard, who left for undisclosed reasons last year.

Callejas has more than 15 years at the county, including a previous job as manager of the county's Mental Health Services Act programs. She also has worked two jobs at CPS, including supervisor of its emergency response unit.

Callejas sat down with The Bee at the CPS main office in south Sacramento.

CPS has been the subject of many critical reports by grand juries, independent consultants and others. What are the key problems at the agency?

Part of the challenge is feeling the loss of a third of the workforce. We're still feeling those losses. We also have 60 vacant positions, including 12 in emergency response. That means a total of 120 emergency referrals that have to be reassigned to other workers each month, on top of their existing caseload. Everyone is having to do more, and this kind of work can't be put off.

What are your top goals?

I want to continue with the three priorities the agency had before I came – improve safety, promote permanency and have greater accountability.

We have improved safety by narrowing our focus to the most serious cases and dedicating our resources toward those cases.

We promote permanency by reunifying foster children with their parents.

Greater accountability comes with a demonstration that we're doing what we're supposed to – by providing statistics and conducting reviews of critical incidents.

Poor morale has been a problem at CPS. The agency has been singled out for its handling of cases that ended in deaths. Now you've had the staff cuts and the departure of a director. What's the mood like now?

Morale has definitely taken a hit. It's a stressful job and when you throw in all those other factors, it's even tougher. Despite that, I have 650 people on staff who show up and do the job well. It's a very committed workforce.

How do you plan to raise morale?

I've been meeting with the staff and finding out about the issues. I've encouraged them to stop by my office. I'm dedicating resources to the problems. I can't do everything. Some things will have to go through labor groups. Some won't get funded. But I will try to address their issues.

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