Board delays CPS action

Despite strong recommendations that an outsider be brought in to oversee improvements at Sacramento County's Child Protective Services agency, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday put off a decision for 90 days while county officials study the matter.

Agency supporters packed the board chambers during the 3 1/2-hour hearing to discuss the findings of an outside audit that criticized the agency for numerous failures, including its role in the deaths of seven children in a recent 11-month period.

Among those speaking on CPS' behalf were agency officials, parents whose children have been monitored by CPS and child advocates.

"Their work is difficult. It is, by its very nature, imprecise," said Dave Ballard, executive director of the Children's Receiving Home, which provides emergency shelter care for abused and neglected children.

"They do not pitch a perfect game every day," Ballard added.

However, District Attorney Jan Scully, who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting, implored the supervisors to act.

"The need for change is now," she said.

Scully said she was concerned that CPS' failings have been brought before the board many times and "yet nothing changed."

"It is not enough that the department and the county acknowledge problems and promise to do better, or change for the short term – but fall back into old ways," the district attorney said.

Scully's comments echoed a recent warning from the auditors, MGT of America Inc., that the agency has not followed through on nearly 300 suggested improvements that have been recommended by eight oversight committee reports and six grand juries since 1996.

"It is not enough to simply acknowledge good intentions," Scully said.

Supervisor Don Nottoli said he too felt an "urgency" to the situation and, as the meeting closed, he said the board needs to keep the agency among its highest priorities.

"The time has come ," Nottoli said. "We don't need any more studies."

While supervisors Roberta MacGlashan and Susan Peters asked pointed questions throughout the hearing, Supervisor Jimmie Yee expressed reservations about the quality of the MGT report. He characterized the consultant's recommendations as "pretty broad" and said he wanted more specificity.

Supervisor Roger Dickinson said that he had a "significant amount of ambivalence" about bringing in an outsider who would work with CPS and report to the board.

"Ultimately, it seems to me that change has to be sustained from inside the organization," he said, adding that he was concerned about the cost of reforms at a time when state funding is diminished.

But Linus Li, principal of MGT, said that efficiencies identified by an outside consultant could save the county substantial money.

The lack of action by the supervisors on Tuesday drew immediate criticism from some children's advocates not at the meeting.

They "disqualified themselves from any position of public trust and should be recalled," said Ed Howard of Sacramento, senior counsel of the Children's Advocacy Institute. Affiliated with the UC San Diego School of Law, the institute advocates for California children in the state Legislature and courts.

"If you cannot trust your elected officials to act decisively when our children keep dying," Howard continued, "how can you trust their judgment in anything?"

Betsy S. Kimball, an attorney and board chairwoman for Sacramento Child Advocates, said MGT's disturbing conclusions "have been known in the children's advocacy community for a long time." Kimball's agency represents Sacramento's abused and neglected children in dependency court.

"The harsh truth is that CPS is failing to protect too many abused and neglected children at the time of their greatest vulnerability," Kimball said in a statement. "The responsibility for the failures at CPS ultimately lies with the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

"I call on every Supervisor to read the report cover-to-cover. There can be no more excuses and no more delays in making wholesale changes in both the management and operations of CPS."

The $100,000 MGT review was ordered by the county last summer following a series of findings by The Bee about problems inside CPS and a sharp increase in child deaths – particularly those in which the agency had prior contact with the children or their families.

The audit found systemic failures of leadership, poor morale and training. It reported that 13 deaths or near-deaths of children had occurred between 1997 and 2007, compared with 10 such incidents in the last 15 months alone.

In a close-up look at seven recent child deaths, MGT found "procedural deficiencies" by CPS in every one. In four of the cases, the consultant determined that the agency had missed "clear opportunities" to intervene and remove the children from unsafe situations.

At Tuesday's meeting, Peters – the board's chairwoman – asked the auditors why the death rate had shot up, but the reviewers said no single factor stood out among the cases reviewed.

Later, Lynn Frank, the health and human services director whose agency oversees CPS, told the board about the difficulties of social workers' jobs and how painful it had been for CPS to be the focus of negative attention in recent months. She complained that "there's been very little focus on the good work," and on the thousands of children's lives the agency has saved.

"The department has been as concerned as the general public has about the deaths of children in 2008," Frank added.

CPS Director Laura Coulthard followed Frank, telling the board that she welcomed the recommendation for an outside consultant to help her repair problems at the agency. She characterized the MGT review of CPS as a positive report.

"This report really validates improvements we have under way," she said.

Coulthard added that the workload for employees has gone up in the past year but said the agency is nonetheless concerned any time a child dies.

"We certainly recognize one missed opportunity to save a child is one too many," she said.

The MGT report reiterated The Bee's findings last year that the agency's workload was partially increased by children cycling in and out of CPS placements, sometimes being re-abused in the process.

Others agreed with Coulthard's comments that an outsider could help make improvements.

County executive Terry Schutten told The Bee last week he supported the idea, and Jim Hunt, a retired CPS director who is the interim head of the countywide services agency overseeing CPS, said at the Tuesday meeting's outset that he saw an "urgent need" for outside help.

"We knew the results of this report would not be good," Hunt said.

Alyson Collier, head of the county's CPS Oversight Committee, said that while an outside consultant would be helpful, no change in leadership is needed at the helm of CPS.

The oversight committee is among the groups that have issued critical findings over the years, urging CPS to make internal changes.

But bringing in a new team, Collier said, would slow down progress and be "an error in judgment."