Sacramento County supervisors ready to hire group to help CPS

Sacramento County officials are set to initiate sweeping changes at Child Protective Services today in response to mounting criticism of the agency over a recent spike in child deaths.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a $116,250 contract for a nonprofit group, the Child Welfare League of America, to step in and help CPS managers improve guidance of the troubled agency.

Board members also are scheduled to review a new report by the county's Child Death Review Team, which underscores a disturbing upward trend in deaths that was previously documented in a Sacramento Bee investigation and subsequent grand jury probe and outside audit.

The death review team, which analyzes all deaths of children under 18 in the county, found that child abuse and neglect homicides had grown from three in 2007 to 12 in 2008.

Of those 15 deaths in two years, nine children had prior involvement with a county CPS agency in California – eight of them with Sacramento County Child Protective Services. Four of the dead children were the subjects of open cases with Sacramento CPS when they died.

Looking back six years, the team found that child abuse and neglect homicides are increasing overall in Sacramento County, jumping from 13 in the three-year period of 2003-05 to 22 deaths from 2006 through 2008 – nearly a 70 percent increase.

County supervisors and CPS had been resistant over the past year to adopt changes – or even acknowledge problems inside the agency. But as reports of child deaths grew, along with evidence of altered documents and missed opportunities to save some children, the board agreed to invite the Child Welfare League to help and also asked the grand jury to continue its oversight of the agency.

Board Chairwoman Susan Peters said Monday that the board is "committed to fixing CPS." CPS Director Laura Coulthard told The Bee she is "really looking forward to having the support and the technical assistance" from the welfare league.

Kern County hired group

The Child Welfare League of America has consulted with other California counties facing similar challenges.

In 2006, officials in Kern County hired the group for $100,000 following community uproar over the handling of several children's cases, including a 2-year-old boy locked in a closet for several days.

Pat Cheadle, who took over Kern County's Department of Human Services after that audit was under way, said some employees initially were leery of an outside group scrutinizing their work.

Ultimately, the group issued 22 recommendations to the Kern County Board of Supervisors – with the No. 1 recommendation aimed at the board itself, urging its members to stay involved and financially support the agency's goals.

Cheadle said the department was able to hire 38 new workers to help bring down caseloads. Other new programs have sprouted, including one focusing on homes with repeat referrals for neglect.

The Child Welfare League continues in a limited consulting role with Kern County, Cheadle said. Three years after the examination began, she said, the internal resistance has subsided.

"There's so much energy and enthusiasm," Cheadle said. "It's definitely been a very positive experience for us."

Working under a contract that extends through Nov. 3, the league will work with Sacramento County CPS to adopt recommendations made in a report by the grand jury and the outside audit, which was conducted by Florida-based MGT of America Inc.

Among the plans are streamlining the bloated policy manual, providing laptops for social workers in the field and ensuring that employees are given regular performance evaluations.

Already, CPS has formed a team with local law enforcement and the district attorney to better coordinate responses to abuse and neglect. CPS will now begin recording emergency calls to its hotline, and managers and supervisors have completed additional training.

"We've had some great first accomplishments," said Coulthard. There is much more to do, she said, but "I feel like we are on the right track."

Focus placed on child safety

At today's board meeting, the Child Death Review Team will issue a familiar recommendation: that CPS should make child safety its highest priority, rather than try to keep troubled families together.

This was the agency's mandate 13 years ago, after the high-profile murder and torture of 3-year-old Adrian Conway in 1996 exposed a CPS policy that ended up keeping some children in risky homes. At the time, the supervisors moved swiftly and ordered the agency to place child safety above all else.

Despite promises of reform accompanied by hefty funding increases to the agency, the 19-month Bee investigation has revealed that many of the same policies and internal problems persist.

The new death review team report takes an altogether different tone than that presented to the Board of Supervisors in March 2006. At that time, the team celebrated the 2002-2004 drop in child abuse and neglect homicides and attributed it to successful prevention programs begun in Sacramento in the late 1990s.

But even then, the trend was shifting, as child abuse and neglect homicides shot up again in 2005 and 2006.

Common risk factors found

The 15 deaths in 2007-08 reveal an especially vulnerable population. Of the 15 children who died of abuse and neglect, 12 were under age 5 – or 80 percent, the team found. Eight of the children – more than half – were African American.

Additionally, four of the 15 dead children also were known to be "medically fragile," with chronic medical conditions or special health care needs.

Sheila Boxley, president and CEO of the Child Abuse Prevention Center, expressed concern about rising child deaths being reported just as services are threatened by statewide budget cuts.

"It's very troubling seeing those things coming together," she said.

Risk factors such as drug use were prevalent in most of the deaths, according to the team, which includes a cross section of health, law enforcement, schools and other professionals in child welfare. In probing the homicides, the team found histories including:

Violent or nonviolent crime in 10 families

Alcohol and/or drug use in eight families

Domestic violence in three families

Mental health issues for the parent or caregiver in three families

Drug involvement at the time of the child's death in two families.

Personnel review lacking

Lack of internal accountability and review of CPS personnel has been an ongoing issue for the agency.

The Bee found that at least 7 percent of the agency's 969 workers have criminal records in Sacramento County, with charges or convictions that included drug possession, illegal weapons possession, domestic violence, prostitution and repeated drunken driving.

The grand jury also accused CPS of failing "to accept responsibility and accountability" for problems inside the agency, noting that was a "recurring criticism" of CPS for more than a decade.

But the agency generally disagrees with that assessment, saying in a report to be given to the board today that it "does not concur" and that agency leadership "is absolutely committed to improvement."

However, the agency has conceded it has not evaluated its workers regularly, acknowledging that "they have failed in this area," according to the grand jury report.

For instance, when 4-year-old Jahmaurae Allen was beaten to death last July, CPS managers complained that the case had been botched by a rogue social worker who "worked in isolation and did not follow established department procedures," according to a statement issued July 24 by then-Director Lynn Frank, who recently resigned.

Hired in 1988, the worker, Adriane Miles, previously had been denied a transfer because of her "poor work reputation," according to public documents. Yet Miles had continued to carry a heavy caseload in emergency response. She was put on administrative leave after Jahmaurae's death.

Peters said Monday that she is pleased CPS staff members seem willing to accept criticism and "look to solutions." But Peters said everyone needs a clearer understanding of how the agency can operate openly while staying within legal requirements.

The grand jury was especially critical of what it described as CPS' "shield of privacy and secrecy." In its written response, CPS said that it would "strengthen efforts to increase transparency and access to department operations and decision making."