State urges thorough criminal checks of county CPS workers

The discovery that a number of Sacramento County child protection workers have criminal histories – some for drug use, spousal abuse and other violent crimes – has prompted California's top social services officials to urge all counties to perform thorough background checks on both prospective and current employees.

The state Department of Social Services, which oversees the county-run child welfare agencies, issued a notice Friday that "strongly encourages" counties to conduct criminal background checks "in their efforts to employ qualified staff who are in frequent and routine contact with children."

Last month The Bee revealed that at least 7 percent of the workers at Sacramento County's Child Protective Services had criminal histories.

The Bee, which reviewed criminal case files in Sacramento County, found social workers with repeat arrests for driving under the influence while other front-line workers had histories of drug possession, theft and embezzlement. A female registered sex offender worked for months at the front counter of a CPS office where children frequently crowd the waiting area.

State Social Services Director John A. Wagner said the stories highlighted "the need to remind counties of the tools that are available to them."

"I think there's definitely room for improvement," said Wagner, stressing that California's system gives counties latitude in how they administer their child protection systems.

The Bee found, for instance, that some counties only screen applicants and do not follow up once they are working at the agency. Some counties request only state-level background checks from the California Department of Justice, while other jurisdictions ask – and pay more – for an FBI search of a worker's criminal history.

At no extra charge, the state Department of Justice also will provide what is called subsequent arrest notifications, or "rap-backs," which let a county know if an employee is arrested after being hired. But many counties do not request the service, according to a DOJ review of its arrangements with counties.

The state's April 24 letter, signed by Linné Stout of the Child Protection and Family Support Branch, specifically mentioned rap-backs as a prospective tool for counties and gave instructions on how to obtain them from DOJ.

A Sacramento County spokeswoman told The Bee last month that the county receives subsequent arrest notifications.

But California counties also are granted discretion over what to do about an existing employee who is arrested.

The Bee's review of criminal histories in Sacramento CPS showed that some employees were arrested months and even years after being hired – a few for violent offenses or drug charges.

While Wagner, the state's social services chief, stressed that his department cannot mandate how California counties run their programs, one child advocate said he believes the issue is "of enough importance" that the state should more aggressively oversee how county CPS workers are screened.

"And maybe there should be some distinction between workers who actually have direct contact with children and parents vs. those simply sitting in an office somewhere," said William Grimm, a senior attorney with the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.

Grimm pointed to The Bee's findings about workers with DUIs as an area of concern.

"The DUI thing would be very concerning if that's a person who is supervising actual cases or transporting children," he said.

Lizelda Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, said the state has not yet received any county feedback on the notice. Lopez said there are no additional plans regarding the state's role in the hiring of county child protection workers.

The state's action comes as Sacramento's CPS agency faces calls for a massive overhaul because of a string of recent child deaths and internal problems identified in a Bee investigation last year, as well as critical reports from a private consultant and the county grand jury.

Last week, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors agreed to ask a private, nonprofit group to propose plans for improving CPS policies and procedures. The Child Welfare League of America is expected to issue a bid to the county in the next week. Supervisors also asked grand jury members to remain involved in helping the troubled agency.