Budget cuts could hurt progress by Sacramento County CPS

Programs that have contributed to a drop in child abuse deaths in Sacramento County this year are likely to fall victim to the latest round of budget cuts, officials said Thursday.

The Child Protective Services division of Sacramento County's Department of Health and Human Services has "run out of places to look" to cope with a projected $8.8 million loss in county general funds, director Laura Coulthard told The Bee. The agency, which has been under intense scrutiny for its handling of abuse and neglect cases, is planning to lay off front-line social workers.

During a public hearing Thursday that drew emotional testimony from nearly 100 speakers, county supervisors suggested the proposed cuts to CPS may be too severe, and that the county should explore other options. "This is a program that should be at the top of the list" for salvaging, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Peters said.

CPS could lose 199 positions, officials said.

"How are we going to keep kids safe?" Department of Health and Human Services Director Ann Edwards-Buckley asked the supervisors. "It is a huge concern."

Child welfare agencies across the state are facing budget squeezes because of declining revenues, increased costs and state funding reductions, said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Child Welfare Directors Association of California.

Sacramento County CPS appears to be worse off than some other agencies, which have managed to hold onto their front-line field staff.

In Los Angeles County, staffing levels "are a priority and last on the list of items for child welfare budget cuts," Patricia Ploehn, director of the county's Department of Children and Family Services, told The Bee. Several other counties said they are optimistic about avoiding layoffs of key personnel.

Under the proposal presented to Sacramento County supervisors Thursday, nearly half of the 199 jobs to be cut are social worker positions. Social workers are charged with protecting youngsters, sizing up their environments and assessing their risk of harm.

Facing its second county budget cut since June, and a 10 percent reduction in state funding, Coulthard said the agency had no choice but to lay off workers.

"We've been committed to making improvements, and now we have to take a step back and figure out what we can and cannot do given the reality of these cuts," Coulthard said in an interview.

In the past eight months, two children have died of abuse in the county, compared with 12 in 2008. Neither of the 2009 deaths involved families with a CPS history.

Coulthard and others attribute the decrease in part to more intensive monitoring of families.

If the latest cuts go through, CPS no longer would investigate borderline referrals or calls that fail to meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect. The agency no longer would help law enforcement by screening cases before referring them for criminal action. The Special Assault Forensic Center, a kid-friendly environment where young victims are interviewed, would close.

These programs, along with more aggressive overall monitoring, appear to have paid dividends in the past year, said CPS officials and child advocates.

Coulthard "has a vision for where the agency must go" and has made significant progress, said Robert Wilson of Sacramento Child Advocates, a nonprofit legal group that represents foster children. "It goes without saying that additional cuts to CPS will result in an increased danger to children and in the deaths of children who did not have to die."

Supervisor Don Nottoli said the county must use "innovation and creativity" and consider options such as eliminating overtime rather than cutting jobs. "I would much prefer to have that discussion than laying off 200 folks," he said.

Elsewhere in the state, child welfare agencies are looking for creative ways to avoid layoffs, especially of social workers. A spot check by The Bee found a number of counties that are not anticipating new layoffs or are trying to avert them. Tulare, Los Angeles, San Diego, Stanislaus and Contra Costa counties are instead trimming costs by cutting managers and support staff, freezing pay, eliminating travel, and postponing technical improvements.

Los Angeles County, with the state's largest child welfare department, is refusing to make cuts to social work staff or direct services for children and families, Ploehn said. The agency plans to cut costs in other programs, supplies and contracts.

Kern County's Department of Human Services has slashed overtime and travel expenses, said deputy director Dena Brashear.

Still, said assistant director Bethany Christman, "You're going to see fewer children reunified with their families," in Kern. "That means more kids in the foster system. The need for foster homes will increase. It's a domino effect."

Sacramento County CPS has tried to reduce costs in ways ranging from combining offices to streamlining jobs to buying fewer supplies before resorting to layoffs, officials said. They said layoffs will occur in virtually every program and at every level, including nine management positions.

The agency hopes to plug some of the lower-level holes, Coulthard said, by using Americorps volunteers and college interns.

Under the new budget scenario, Sacramento County CPS will have a difficult time making improvements demanded by investigative agencies, including the county grand jury, officials said.

"It's been a tough go," Coulthard said. "People are worried and scared. But in all of this, maybe we can find some opportunities to do some things better."