Supervisors vow to tackle CPS ills; outside agency, grand jury invited to help

Agreeing that Sacramento's Child Protective Services agency needs to make serious, long-term changes, the county Board of Supervisors on Wednesday endorsed a sweeping series of oversight proposals that included bringing in an outside consultant and the grand jury to help.

"We need to have a continued sense of urgency," Supervisor Don Nottoli said before the unanimous vote to address problems inside the agency.

The board, acting on a proposal by Chairwoman Susan Peters, asked CPS to begin enacting reforms recommended by a private consultant and the grand jury immediately, and to report back on progress within 45 days. The board also endorsed Peters' suggestion for monthly progress reports.

The decision followed a presentation by the Child Welfare League of America, which said it had met this week with CPS officials and child welfare advocates and found "that the problems are serious."

Andy Reitz, director of training for the Arlington, Va.-based group, said, however, that the issues he has identified in Sacramento are not substantially different from those in other jurisdictions he has helped and that "significant progress can be made both in the short- and the long-term."

"There's really clear agreement about what needs to be done," Reitz said, adding that his group would focus on the most important deficiencies identified by the private consultant and the grand jury in their recent, separate reports.

The Child Welfare League, a private, nonprofit group, will present a bid to the board within 10 days, outlining plans to help CPS leadership improve policies and procedures.

CPS has been under fire since last summer, after a spike in child abuse and neglect deaths was detected and The Bee published a series of stories about chronic problems in the handling of some child death cases.

The board hired consultant MGT of America Inc. last summer for a $100,000 study of the agency. In a March 31 report to the board, MGT found numerous problems, including "missed opportunities" to move four children to safety before they died and a failure to implement nearly 300 recommendations issued by various groups since 1997.

MGT recommended that an outside agency be brought in to work with CPS and that regular reports be made to the board to ensure that sorely needed changes were made.

Two weeks later, the grand jury issued its report, identifying similar problems and complaining that "nothing ever changes – ever."

Wednesday's vote stemmed from a letter Peters sent to her colleagues on April 14, the same day that Lynn Frank, the head of the county's Health and Human Services Department that oversees CPS, announced that she was leaving her post immediately and retiring at the end of the year.

That letter suggested adopting many of the MGT and grand jury findings, and forming a working group of law enforcement and CPS officials to identify problems and tackle them quickly.

Not included in the letter was perhaps the most surprising development Wednesday: an invitation for grand jury members to take a hands-on role in reforming the agency.

Grand jury foreman Donald W. Prange told The Bee that the idea came from a meeting with Peters and said he was "very pleased" that the board wants the panel to remain involved.

"We want to see things change," Prange said. "We want to see that the kids are protected and that the social workers are respected by management."

Previously, the grand jury's reception from the county was less enthusiastic. Supervisor Jimmie Yee told The Bee last summer that he did not support a grand jury probe of CPS, although he later changed his stance.

In the course of the grand jury investigation, the panel said it had to warn CPS' top management not to interfere in its attempts to get information from workers, and the final report alleged that top CPS officials "made misrepresentations to the Grand Jury."

Supervisors spent part of Wednesday's meeting complaining that their response to the MGT report on March 31 was misunderstood and that their criticisms did not mean they opposed it.

Yee, who had originally complained that the audit was vague and overly broad, said Wednesday that he simply meant he wanted more specifics on what actions would be taken in response to MGT's findings.

Supervisor Roger Dickinson, who originally said he was not convinced of the need for an outside consultant, took pains Wednesday to say that he had merely been concerned about budget constraints and whether an outsider could implement long-term change.

He said Wednesday's presentation by the Child Welfare League and a representative of the respected Casey Family Programs foundation convinced him of the need for outside intervention. Dickinson added that he had not seen the Peters letter that was being voted on, but asked for a copy while the board debated and then joined the other supervisors in adopting its recommendations.

Jim Hunt, the acting administrator for the Countywide Services Agency, which oversees agencies such as CPS, assured board members that county officials understand that improvements are needed at CPS and that they already are under way.

"We absolutely share that concern," Hunt said. "We are committed, we are motivated and we want to see this change."