Sacramento County child agency slow to update manual, report says

Sacramento County's Child Protective Services needs to step up progress on completing its policy manual more than a year after the agency was warned that its guidelines were outdated, inconsistent and contradictory, according to a new citizens' report.

While expressing overall confidence in the county's child protection administrators, the CPS Oversight Committee singled out the agency's sluggish progress in its annual report Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors.

The Oversight Committee acknowledged the toll of budget cuts at CPS, but noted that workers there have been accused of failing to follow policies and procedures in children's deaths – yet an updated manual has yet to materialize.

"With the staff layoffs and position-shifting that has occurred in the last year, it is more important than ever for CPS to have up-to-date policies and procedures to guide staff in carrying out duties with which they are unfamiliar and inexperienced," according to the committee, which has monitored CPS since 1996.

The child protection agency experienced an alarming spike in child deaths in 2008, detailed in a series of stories by The Bee. At the time, CPS officials laid much of the blame on mistakes and lapses in judgment by social workers.

But CPS management soon faced its own criticism, with a key complaint being the agency's cumbersome, 1,300-page manual.

The agency's plan to finish its revisions by Dec. 31, 2011, troubled committee members, who said they considered the manual a backbone to workers' day-to-day activities.

Ann Edwards-Buckley, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency would respond to the committee's recommendations next month.

Chairman Roy Alexander praised CPS for the "great progress" made after highly critical reports last year from an independent consultant and from the Sacramento County grand jury.

As always in county meetings, the specter of the budget calamity loomed large. Since May 2009, the agency has cut staffing by 30 percent, including more than 130 social workers. In its report, the Oversight Committee cautioned that its members had "grave concerns about the impact budget reductions to CPS will have on the well-being and physical safety of children."

Tuesday's report to supervisors adopted the polite, understated tone that has been a hallmark of the Oversight Committee, which over the years has detailed serious problems within the agency that have contributed to children's deaths.

In addition to speeding up the policy manual, the committee recommended that the agency move more quickly to evaluate its workers. It also urged the agency to improve disciplinary practices for low-performing employees.

Once again, the committee found, children had died in cases where "poor performance and inadequate training" by workers had been factors.