Panel finds lapses by Sacramento County social workers

Sacramento County Child Protective Services continues to make mistakes in cases that end up in death or near death, according to an independent report presented to supervisors Tuesday.

In one case, parents left a child with an unsafe caregiver, but a social worker decided that the allegation was unfounded because she didn’t want to punish the parents. Later, the child was murdered after being left with a different but still unsafe caregiver, according to the report by the Child Protective System Oversight Committee, an independent body of child-welfare and law-enforcement professionals.

Since 1996, when the county created the committee following the beating death of 3-year-old Adrian Conway, such cases have been a staple of the committee’s annual reports to the Board of Supervisors. In its report for the last fiscal year, the committee reviewed nine cases in which children were killed or nearly killed and found “the mistakes of the past have been repeated.”

Those mistakes included a failure to exercise proper judgment, follow procedure and communicate with other agencies involved in troubled families’ lives, the report found.

Tuesday’s findings come after Health and Human Services Director Sherri Heller assured the board in October that CPS had made great improvements. “I think it’s accurate to say that CPS is no longer an agency in crisis,” she said at the time.

On Tuesday, Heller and CPS Deputy Director Michelle Callejas did not dispute the oversight report and said it had helped the agency better understand how to improve. However, they added that the agency has made important strides and is “no longer in crisis mode,” in the words of Heller.

Gina Roberson, a commission co-chair, said CPS has been open to the commission’s recommendations and made efforts to implement them. Yet CPS continues to make fundamental mistakes, she said.

“The gap that we have seen over and over is in the critical thinking skills of the social workers,” said Roberson, who works at the Child Abuse Prevention Center.

Supervisors expressed frustration over how some cases have been handled, particularly the one in which parents were found not responsible for a safety violation for leaving their child with an unsafe caregiver. The cases in the report do not include names, dates or other identifying information.

“There’s a contradiction here – the allegation was true but it was unfounded,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli. “What am I missing here?”

Callejas said it’s not unusual for social workers to decide that a case is unfounded even when an investigation shows it should be upheld. Social workers are generally trying to keep the families intact and worry that a founded complaint might lead to the removal of a child from the home, she said.

Still, Callejas called the practice inappropriate, including when it was done in the case reported by the oversight committee. “It was an error,” she said.

Supervisor Phil Serna said the practice suggests that CPS has systemic problems. “I want to know if we have instituted the wrong questions,” he said.

The committee report criticizes the decision not to cite the parents for leaving their child with an unsafe caregiver, saying a “substantiated disposition on the first referral would have provided the young parents with services that might have been beneficial.”

In several cases, the committee found problems with CPS policies and procedures, a shortcoming the committee and other reviewers have repeatedly raised about the agency. The committee report tells the story of an infant who nearly died because policies failed to explain how a social worker should have handled the child’s “mentally unstable and homicidal parent who had made previous attempts to harm the child.”

Callejas conceded that the agency has been unsuccessful in trying to improve its policies and plans to contract with an outside organization to help write new ones to guide the agency’s work.