199 jobs in jeopardy at Sacramento County CPS

Sacramento County's Child Protective Services division would slash 199 jobs, monitor fewer youngsters and put less emphasis on abuse prevention under the most recent round of proposed budget cuts.

An internal memo by director Laura Coulthard and obtained by The Bee says the division is facing an $8.8 million cut in county general funds on top of previous reductions in government funding. If those cuts become reality next month, staffing levels will be trimmed to 1998 levels, from 954 positions to 755, Coul- thard notes.

The proposed cuts would leave CPS to focus almost exclusively on children at greatest risk, and downplay programs that aim to prevent abuse and neglect, officials said. Workers would take longer to respond to referrals, leaving children in potentially unsafe environments.

Only calls that meet the exact legal definition of abuse or neglect would be evaluated. Reports of serious offenses such as severe physical abuse or neglect would be referred directly to law enforcement rather than assessed first by CPS.

"We no longer have a frayed safety net. We have a safety net that is shredded," said Jim Hunt, acting head of the Countywide Services Agency. "We are truly going to have to focus on evaluating the risk and safety of each child, and set priorities."

The Board of Supervisors will consider the CPS budget in hearings next month.

"The board is not going to have many choices," Hunt said. "The days of pulling money out of reserves or borrowing from other funds are over."

Coulthard's memo says the proposed cuts would affect virtually every program and employees at all levels, including management. The agency's emergency response team, the first to deal with reports of neglect and abuse, would lose 31 positions, and major cuts also would be made to its family reunification, family maintenance and court services programs, among others.

"Keeping children safe remains our top priority and we are looking at ways to reallocate resources to maintain this mission," Coulthard's memo reads. She said the agency is trying to figure out a way to "streamline jobs and partner with the community to offer services we may no longer be able to provide."

During the past year, CPS has faced harsh criticism of its management and policies in response to an increase in child deaths, and the agency has vowed to improve its response to reports of abuse and neglect.

Last year, the county's Child Death Review Team documented 12 child abuse and neglect homicides, compared with three in 2007.

The county hired an outside consultant, the Child Welfare League of America, to help CPS solve internal problems that may have contributed to the deaths, but the $100,000 contract has been cut in half, Hunt said.

The Sacramento County grand jury, in a scathing report of CPS released in April, said the agency has failed to follow its own policies, mirroring many of the revelations The Bee uncovered in a series of investigative articles.

The newest cuts will affect the county's ability to implement grand jury recommendations, chief operations officer Nav Gill said Tuesday.

Board of Supervisors chairwoman Susan Peters said CPS has been making progress during the past year.

"Making a bad situation worse, the state hasn't provided funding to cover CPS's actual operating costs since 2001," Peters said. "The county made up this shortfall with general funds, but that option is no longer being recommended."

Children's advocates said the budget reductions now under consideration would be a serious blow.

"We know, without a doubt, what the ultimate results will be in Sacramento County," said Edward Howard, senior counsel for the nonprofit Children's Advocacy Institute, based at the University of San Diego School of Law. "Children will be left too long in abusive homes. Children will be taken from homes when they should not be. Children will die."

Howard's group filed a federal lawsuit in Sacramento County recently, arguing that the dependency court, which deals with children who have been removed from their homes because of allegations of abuse and neglect, is overburdened. He said CPS social workers also have unmanageable caseloads.

"Decisions already are being made arbitrarily because social workers are so overwhelmed by cases," he said. "This is just one more example of how our society's priorities are completely upside down."