September 12, 2012

Report criticizes absenteeism at Sacramento County Child Protective Services

Almost half of Sacramento County's child abuse investigators were unavailable to handle cases in the last fiscal year, according to a report presented Tuesday.

Almost half of Sacramento County's child abuse investigators were unavailable to handle cases in the last fiscal year, according to a report presented Tuesday.

In its annual review of the county's long troubled child welfare agency, the CPS Oversight Committee focused on the emergency response unit responsible for detecting abuse and neglect in homes. The committee, made up of child-welfare professionals and county employees not in CPS, presented its report to the Board of Supervisors.

On a daily basis, only 55 percent of the emergency response unit's employees were available to investigate abuse and neglect reports in the fiscal year that ended June 30, the report found. At the time, there were 168 investigators and supervisors in the unit.

The absentees include Blancho Brumfield, who was put on leave earlier this year after the county received a complaint about her background. She lost her state day care license several years ago because of alleged child abuse in a facility she ran in Vallejo.

Struggling to keep up with increased work demands, social workers use sick time and vacations to stay on top of caseloads, the report said.

The committee blamed county managers for accepting a "culture of absenteeism."

CPS Deputy Director Michelle Callejas disagreed with that complaint, saying employees are often unavailable for legitimate reasons. She also said the county generally has enough investigators.

However, a survey completed by 59 percent of emergency response workers and managers suggested otherwise. About 90 percent of workers and supervisors said high caseloads were the top barrier to completing a thorough investigation.

Staff attendance was just one of several problems identified by the committee. As in previous reports, the committee found critical errors in cases that ended up with a child dying or almost dying.

While the report did not cite specific cases, CPS has continued to face public scrutiny for its handling of suspected abuse and neglect.

In recent months, it has come to light that CPS failed to keep track of a baby boy who now has been missing for a year and that it did not properly document reasons for returning a baby girl to her parents' home, where she later died of medical neglect.

David Ballard, CEO of the Children's Receiving Home of Sacramento, said problems at CPS are "more critical than they have ever been." Ballard chairs the organization that runs the oversight committee.

CPS has lost about 30 percent of its staff to budget cuts in recent years. While emergency response has avoided the cuts, workers have had to pick up tasks of lost employees.

CPS needs to finish updating its policies and make them more readily available to investigators in the field, the oversight committee said.

The agency also needs to provide more training to social workers, who are often confused about how to proceed with a case and how to make a final determination, the report said. About half of workers and managers surveyed said they were sometimes confused about what a case outcome determination should be, the report said.

When half of the supervisors are confused about how to make a decision in cases, they can't provide much help to investigators, said Lori Greene, an assistant chief deputy district attorney who serves on the committee.

Callejas said the county agrees with most of the report's findings. "We have a lot of work to do," she said.

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