Investigations

Sacramento sheriff backs DA's plea for quick board action on CPS problems

Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness called Wednesday for immediate action to correct problems at the county's troubled Child Protective Services agency, joining with District Attorney Jan Scully in urging the Board of Supervisors to make changes at the agency.

"It appears clear that there are problems within the organization and the mission of that organization is so critical and the consequences so enormous that we all need to be willing to participate in efforts to correct the situation," McGinness told The Bee.

Later in the day, the sheriff and Scully discussed what steps the two law enforcement agencies could take if the board does not move forward.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors put off a decision for 90 days about what elements it would adopt from a $100,000 review it had ordered of CPS. The independent review by MGT of America Inc. highlighted numerous problems within the agency and called for an outside manager to temporarily step in and help CPS leaders make improvements.

But supervisors said Tuesday they were not convinced of the need for outside help and would await recommendations from county staff.

The new alarms raised by the county's top two elected law enforcement officials were embraced by some child advocates, who accused the Board of Supervisors of repeatedly failing to hold CPS accountable for internal flaws and serious mistakes.

"I'm glad to see John McGinness and Jan Scully are stepping up to the plate and not playing politics with children's lives," said Robert Wilson, executive director of Sacramento Child Advocates, whose attorneys represent children in dependency court.

Scully appeared at Tuesday's board meeting and delivered a strong pitch for the board to take action in light of a series of seven deaths during a recent 11-month period of children who had been CPS cases. She reminded the board that her office has a high stake in how CPS functions because her attorneys prosecute cases of physical and sexual abuse – as well as child deaths.

"The (MGT) report depicts a department overwhelmed by internal problems, conflicting policies and poor outcomes," said Scully, first elected to her position in 1994.

Scully told The Bee on Wednesday that she was "disappointed board members felt they needed to study this another 90 days." She said she did not want to condemn CPS, but believes strongly that the agency can do better.

McGinness endorsed Scully's call, saying he was frustrated by what he sees as continued delays in addressing problems at CPS.

"Even in this period of dim resources, the consequences of not ensuring appropriate intervention in an environment where the most vulnerable of society are in peril is unforgivable," he said. "So we stand prepared to work with the District Attorney's Office and CPS and anybody else who is willing to seek resolution."

McGinness added that he does believe supervisors will take action and has faith the board "will do the right thing."

The call by the county's top two law enforcement officials comes as the county is trying to determine how to correct problems inside CPS. Among the issues described by MGT were low morale, high turnover, high absenteeism and a chronic inability to deal with problem employees. The consultant also said that the agency's top-tier managers were "not functioning as strategic leaders within the division."

A key problem, MGT found, is that many workers are overwhelmed and confused by the county's guidelines for social workers, which include 167 policies spanning 1,300 pages.

In her remarks to the board, Scully referred to the CPS manual as a "labyrinth" of written policies and procedures that are a "mixture of the outdated, the conflicting, and the nonsensical."

As an immediate first step, Scully suggested that the CPS oversight committee should tackle the guidelines. The committee was created after the 1996 death of 3-year-old Adrian Conway, which triggered numerous reforms.

"You can have so many policies that nothing ever gets followed," Scully said.

County officials say they are working to correct the problems, and CPS Director Laura Coulthard repeated her willingness Wednesday to have an outside agency help her address issues. Child welfare officials from Orange County recently visited Sacramento to share some of their successful practices, she said, and San Diego will visit soon.

"We're absolutely open to outside help," Coulthard said in an interview on Capital Public Radio.

In Wednesday's radio program, in which The Bee also participated, Supervisor Roger Dickinson – recorded earlier – agreed that "a number of things emerged from the report we need to act on."

Among them, he said, were ensuring that policies are clear and consistent, and that the agency has access to better technology. At Tuesday's meeting, the consultant told supervisors that CPS has only 53 laptops shared by 469 social workers and 102 supervisors.

Dickinson stressed that he believes the "vast majority of social workers and supervisors are doing a very good job on a day-to-day basis."

Scully expressed her own "respect and appreciation to all of the dedicated workers at CPS."

Among her ideas are pulling together a law enforcement roundtable to collect reform ideas from public safety officials. She also said she wants her staff to examine the profiles of perpetrators in child homicides to help CPS workers better assess children's risk.

This was not the first time Scully has laid out her concerns about CPS. On Tuesday, she released a letter she wrote in July 2007 to Dr. Angie Rosas, then chairwoman of the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team.

In it, Scully said the death review team appeared to be downplaying a spike in child deaths in 2005, when nine children died of abuse or neglect – four of whom were in families known to CPS. A total of five children had died in the preceding two years; four of those victims also were in families known to CPS.

"I believe the current level of child abuse homicides and the high percentage of those deaths occurring in families known to CPS should serve as a catalyst to re-examine the current policies and practices at CPS," Scully wrote in the 2007 letter.

Scully said Wednesday she never got a response from the death review team or the agency to her letter, of which she had sent copies to county officials.

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