Budget cuts slow reforms at Sacramento County's child protection agency

Budget cuts are threatening reform efforts at Sacramento County's long-troubled Child Protective Services agency, according to two reports released Tuesday.

In presentations to the Board of Supervisors, officials behind the reports said CPS has made improvements in recent years, including responding in a more timely manner to complaints of abuse and neglect.

But the director who instituted many of the changes, Laura Coulthard, has taken an extended leave from the agency, with no word on when she will return.

One of the reports highlighted continued problems at the agency in its overview of recent child fatalities.

The CPS Oversight Committee, tasked by supervisors to serve as a community watchdog, found that CPS workers failed to follow policy, made critical thinking errors or made supervisory mistakes in five of seven child death cases it reviewed.

"There has been a great improvement in the timeliness of responses," said Jean McGrath, chairwoman of the committee. "It's the quality of the investigative response that we're concerned about."

The committee urged supervisors to keep funding intact for CPS, while the other group issuing a report, the Child Death Review Team, recommended that the county restore funding to programs that prevent child abuse.

Ann Edwards, director of the Health and Human Services Department, which includes CPS, said she agreed with the findings in the two reports. She also told supervisors that CPS can't improve with further staff cuts.

In recent years the county has cut about a third of the agency's staff. CPS now has about 620 employee positions.

The cuts were made shortly after CPS was asked to make widespread improvements. Following investigative reports by The Bee, the county grand jury and a private consultant had issued scathing reviews of the agency, finding that CPS had become ineffective and unaccountable as more children were dying due to abuse and neglect.

Under Coulthard, the agency has rewritten many policies and started conducting annual employee evaluations.

Members of the Child Death Review Team and the Oversight Committee praised Coulthard's efforts to improve CPS, as other child advocates have done in the past.

The agency's response to both emergency and non-emergency reports of abuse and neglect has improved, according to agency reports.

But some parts of the agency's performance have lagged – such as its required monthly visits to foster children. That's a direct result of staff cuts, as the agency has had to shift remaining staff members into handling emergency calls, leaving fewer people to make monthly visits, Edwards said.

The Child Death Review Team, a group of professionals from different disciplines, noted the loss of programs aimed at new parents.

"Parents are the most likely perpetrator of child abuse and neglect homicides," said Sheila Boxley of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Sacramento, which coordinates the death review team. "These crimes happen in the home."

Six children were killed by abuse or neglect in Sacramento County in 2009, the latest year reviewed, according to the team's report. Five of them were killed by a parent.

Five of the six children had prior involvement with a CPS agency in Sacramento County or elsewhere, the report says.

Edwards said CPS reviews the death or near-death of any child in the welfare system to see where the agency might have erred and could make needed improvements.

Supervisors didn't respond to the funding requests by the two groups. They did not make any cuts to the agency in the current year's budget approved last month. But they will have to revisit that budget later this year.