Sacramento County foster kids are being mistreated at a rate not seen since the recession a decade ago, the latest state data show, but the county has no immediate answers about what’s causing the increase in confirmed cases of abuse of children in its care.
County officials substantiated 85 reports of maltreatment in Sacramento County foster homes between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017. That's an increase of 30 cases, or 55 percent, from the same period the prior year, according to state Department of Social Services data maintained by the University of California, Berkeley.
Only five other California counties had a higher rate of substantiated child maltreatment cases per 100,000 days in foster care: San Bernardino, Del Norte, Madera, Siskiyou and Stanislaus.
“We are aware of it,” said Sacramento County Child Protective Services Deputy Director Michelle Callejas. “We are actually digging deeper into that data.”
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In a review of substantiated complaints against Sacramento foster placements, The Sacramento Bee found a variety of violations, including physical and sexual abuse in residential foster homes, group settings and other placements.
In one instance, a county social worker investigating a January 2017 claim that a “foster mother starved foster child,” found that there was a lack of food in the house.
A June complaint alleged “unknown males allowed to enter facility and have sex” with foster kids. An investigation subsequently confirmed that men were able to come into the housing at night, and ordered the facility to improve supervision.
In another placement, investigators found that a staff member called “his friends to the group home to fight” in June 2016. The men attacked a foster youth, leaving him with a concussion. That same facility, though using a different name, was subsequently found not to have adequate food for its six foster youths twice during 2017 inspections. Most recently, it was cited by the county for failing to properly report that a resident with a history of arson set a fire in the facility in September.
Callejas said she convened a team in recent weeks to look at the rising numbers, but does not have answers yet. Callejas said the county would need to “do the hard file pull” to review records and examine each case to better understand the circumstances.
“I don’t want to speculate,” said Callejas. “I want to hear from my team.”
Callejas said there was no timeline for how long that review might take.
Sacramento has not seen such high numbers of substantiated child maltreatment in foster care in more than a decade. During 2006, 193 foster care maltreatment allegations were substantiated, but roughly double the number of children were in foster care at the time. In each of the last five years, the number of substantiated complaints generally fell between 40 and 60, state figures show.
State officials said they were also aware of the increase and were working “collaboratively” with Sacramento County to review the rise.
“It’s very typical when you are dealing in child welfare services that understanding what is going on is extremely important vs. doing something very quickly without being informed,” said Mike Weston, Deputy Director of Public Affairs and Outreach with the California Department of Social Services. “Obviously any abuse in care needs to be addressed immediately, but understanding some of the causes of that are important as well, and that’s really where things are right now.”
Experts and advocates involved in child welfare said the rise in substantiated claims of abuse could have causes other than caretakers mistreating their charges or failing to provide a safe environment. Weston and others suggested that the numbers could indicate problems with how data are being entered by case workers, increased awareness and reporting requirements around sex trafficking, past abuse reported at a later date or instances of maltreatment by a third-party, such as a visitor to a group home.
The number also refers to individual instances of abuse, meaning one child could account for multiple reports.
The county and state review are looking at those and other possibilities, said Weston.
“That is where the progress is on this,” said Weston. “I think there is a lot going on, but to speculate at this point is probably not productive.”
Along with the rise in mistreatment numbers, Sacramento also reported poor measures of placing children with relatives, and high numbers for placing children in group homes.
California recently implemented statewide reforms to foster care to encourage counties to move away from the use of group homes as long-term placements. Part of that effort involves encouraging social workers to find relatives or other caregivers, such as neighbors or educators familiar with the child, for placement. Under state reforms, group homes are shifting to focus on being short-term residential treatment centers, while shelters are meant to provide immediate short-term placement when other options aren’t available.
Despite that state mandate, about 19 percent of foster children are placed with relatives in Sacramento County during their first entry into the foster system, compared to 31 percent of foster children statewide.
About 29 percent of Sacramento County foster youths are placed in group or shelter homes, compared to 11 percent statewide.
Only a handful of counties saw a higher percentage of foster children placed in group homes or shelters.
“We have struggled in this area and we are trying to better understand it,” said Callejas of the county’s continuing reliance on group homes.
While Sacramento numbers trail statewide figures for relative placements, the percentages may still be artificially high. Tracking first placements with relatives is tricky because terminology has changed for these cases, causing a glitch in the reporting system, said Daniel Webster, principal investigator for the California Child Welfare Indicators Project at UC Berkeley. To account for the change, The Sacramento Bee included placements listed as “other” in state data to ensure no children with relatives were missed.
Callejas said the county is working to improve its record of placing children with family and friends. Three of the department’s 386 social workers have been reassigned in recent weeks to do “faster assessments of relatives upfront so that ideally we wouldn’t even need to take them to a shelter.”
But the county still lacks enough foster homes, she said, a statewide and national problem as well.
Sacramento County is also below the state average in visiting children it has placed in foster care to ensure they are safe and receiving proper care. Sacramento County child welfare workers were able to perform timely visits to foster children in out-of-home placements about 86 percent of the time between July 2016 and June 2017. That is well below the statewide average of 95 percent.
Those figures also represent a slip for the county. Sacramento County workers managed timely visits between about 90 and 92 percent of the time during each of the prior five years.
Lakreesha Frederick, who has been in Sacramento foster care on and off from age 12, said she did not feel that social workers adequately monitored her placements or spent enough time with her to ensure her well-being. She is now 23 and in extended foster care, which provides support for foster youths once they emancipate from county supervision at age 18.
“They don’t check in on you at all. They come in there once a month just to see,” she said. “That once a month, you don’t really get a feel for what is going on in that household. Kids aren’t going to tell you the truth because they are scared of being moved around.”
Some child welfare experts said CPS may not have the budget to adequately deal with the more than 2,000 kids currently in its care.
“The county needs to prioritize funding for CPS,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which represents kids in foster care.
Sacramento County Child Protective Services has long been understaffed, due in part to difficulties retaining employees. A May report by the Child Protective Systems Oversight Committee said CPS workers who had left the agency cited their workload as well as issues with support and training as the top two reasons they quit.
The report also said CPS had filled more than 40 vacancies in 2016 and taken steps to improve morale and retention.
The county was also recently forced by the state to stop its practice of illegally housing some children in an administrative intake office in Arden Arcade.
The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that for years, children have been sleeping on the floor at the Centralized Placement Support Unit on Auburn Boulevard with little supervision or services, though the office was designed only as a temporary first stop for kids in the hours after being removed from their homes.
Frederick, who was placed twice at the Children’s Receiving Home, a group home on the same grounds as the intake center, said she regularly knew about kids staying at those offices as far back as 10 years ago, though she never slept there herself.
“That was pretty much normal,” said Frederick. “A lot of times we’d see kids come in and we’d wonder, ‘Oh, where are they at? Oh, they’re still in intake.’”
The state informed the county in a February 2016 letter that the unlicensed facility needed to close, but the county did not stop housing children there until September 2017, according to state and county records.
“We’ve made some great strides,” said Callejas of closing the illegal operation. “We have not had any kids that have overstayed, that have stayed longer than 23 hours, and we have been able to move kids into longer term placements.”
The county moved many of those kids into the adjacent Children’s Receiving Home.
It recently expanded its contract with that facility by $700,000 to accommodate more emergency and residential placements following the state action.