Sacramento County Child Protective Services has dramatically reduced the number of children it seeks to remove from their homes because of abuse and neglect.
That's a big change for an agency that just a few years ago placed more children in foster care than any other large county in the state.
CPS petitioned to remove about 1,000 children from their homes last year, a 40 percent decline from 2009, a Bee analysis found. Petitions were up in the first six months of this year, but at the current pace will still fall well below the average in recent years.
The drop is the result of two developments, according to Ann Edwards, director of the county's Health and Human Services department, which includes CPS. The agency has lost about a third of its staff since 2009, leaving about 660 employees to handle abuse and neglect reports. The bottom line, she says, is that the remaining staff members are juggling bigger caseloads.
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During the same period, the agency also has changed its protocol when it comes to removing children from their parents or guardians, more strictly defining what situations warrant that level of intervention.
Previously, social workers would petition for a child's removal when they had a strong suspicion that a child was in imminent risk – even if they were lacking definitive proof, such as physical trauma.
Now, CPS petitions to remove a child only when a social worker has what appears to be clear evidence of abuse or neglect, Edwards said.
The change in approach marks a huge pendulum shift from where the county was in 2008. At the time, under fire for a series of deaths involving children whose cases were known to CPS, the agency was filing petitions for removal in Juvenile Dependency Court far more often.
That year, CPS placed 6.4 out of every 1,000 children in the county into foster care, according to data maintained by the University of California, Berkeley. That was the highest rate among the state's 25 most populated counties, and nearly twice the statewide average.
The heavy intervention prompted a backlash, with parents and others involved in the system accusing CPS of a subjective assessment process that was ripping apart families without just cause.
Even those charged with advocating for abused and neglected children accused the agency of overreaching.
"They were removing too many children," said Bob Wilson of Sacramento Child Advocates, which provided legal representation for children in Juvenile Dependency Court for almost 20 years, before losing its contract in July.
Edwards said the county heeded the complaints. "We were criticized for not having a more objective standard," she said, explaining the agency's rationale for changing it.
In 2009, CPS changed its protocol, restricting the cases where it would seek to remove children from their parents to those in which there was clear physical evidence of abuse or neglect, Edwards said.
In 2010, the first full year under the new standard, removal rates were cut by almost half compared to 2008, according to UC Berkeley figures. That put the agency in line with the statewide average, and in the middle of the pack of the state's largest counties.
Standard improves focus
Edwards says the new standard has helped CPS to better focus its investigations.
Advocates who work with abused children agree – to a point. Their concern is that the new system only works if the agency has the manpower to thoroughly investigate complaints. After successive years of budget cuts in Sacramento County, they say, that is not happening consistently.
"CPS is stretched so thin," said Wilson of Sacramento Child Advocates. "There are kids out there, who they don't know, who are being abused."
Over the last two years of budget tightening, CPS has lost many social workers once charged with ferreting out abuse. The agency's emergency response unit, which investigates referrals, has lost 35 positions.
The division responsible for handling those investigations in dependency court has eliminated 72 positions.
Edwards contends that despite the cuts, improvements in protocol have helped CPS stay on top of cases. The agency uses a decision-making process that requires social workers to answer key questions about an incident, the child and the family. A team of managers and social workers reviews decisions in critical cases.
Still, in recent months, questions have emerged about the quality of the agency's investigations.
In a July report to the Board of Supervisors, the CPS Oversight Committee, an independent body of child-welfare professionals, noted several instances last year in which children were killed or severely injured after their cases were reported to CPS.
In investigating some complaints, the agency failed to take steps such as interviewing an array of sources – not just the primary suspects – to help determine risk or resolve conflicting stories, the committee found.
The agency's troubles continued in August, when the county announced the departure of Laura Coulthard, who had headed CPS since 2007. County officials would not explain her departure, and she did not respond to phone messages from The Bee.
Budget cuts take toll
There is broad agreement that budget cuts have taken a toll on the agency's ability to intervene with at-risk families before abuse occurs.
The agency's family maintenance program had 57 employees when it was closed in 2009. Although it was voluntary, it had almost 1,300 families participating, evidence that troubled families want help, Edwards said.
The family maintenance unit served families that were the subject of abuse and neglect reports that weren't serious enough to bring to dependency court. Social workers helped families find services for issues that can contribute to abuse, including unemployment, drug abuse and mental illness.
Andrew Reitz, who served as a consultant to CPS when he worked for the Child Welfare League of America, a research group based in Washington, D.C., expects abuse and neglect reports to rise with the loss of the program.
"They stopped providing service to children at risk," he said. "Either those families didn't need service, or we will see an increase in referrals. My guess is that it will be the latter."
Edwards said she regrets the loss of the program, which provided a "set of eyes and ears" to detect and deter abuse.
"The family maintenance unit is probably our missing piece," Edwards said.
The county's Child Death Review Team recommended earlier this year that supervisors restore funding for this and other programs aimed at preventing abuse.
Some county supervisors said restoring any cuts at CPS isn't likely in the near future, given the sluggish economy.
Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said the board is struggling to maintain mandated services, making it difficult to fund prevention programs. She said CPS would be a priority for additional funding if the county sees an economic turnaround.
Edwards says it's too soon to measure the effect of the changes. Members of the county's CPS Oversight Committee agree, but plan to study the issue in coming months.
Greater insight into the agency's performance could come later this year when the California State Auditor releases a report on CPS in four counties, including Sacramento. The report was requested by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, who said he was concerned about deaths in the child-welfare system.