California has a system of laws and agencies designed to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect. This system—often called child protective services—is part of a larger set of programs commonly referred to as the child welfare services (CWS) system. Generally, the CWS system provides family preservation services, removes children from unsafe homes, provides for the temporary placement of these children with relatives or into foster and group homes, and facilitates legal guardianship or the adoption of these children into permanent families when appropriate. Although state law requires the California Department of Social Services (Social Services) to oversee the CWS system, counties carry out the required activities.
Ensuring the Safety of Foster Children
Two of Social Services’ divisions have lead roles in the CWS system—the Children and Family Services Division (family services division) and the Community Care Licensing Division (licensing division). The family services division is responsible for overseeing the CWS system activities, which range from those related to early intervention in the homes of abused or neglected children to services related to the permanent placement of such children. The licensing division oversees and regulates more than 64,000 licensed community care facilities statewide, including the licensing of foster and group homes that house children removed from unsafe homes. In doing so, the licensing division screens and inspects facilities, ensures that licensed facilities comply with applicable laws and regulations, and takes corrective action when facilities violate or cannot meet such laws and regulations. One such violation is the presence of a registered sex offender living or working among children in the CWS system at one of these facilities. State law generally prohibits any person required to register as a sex offender from residing in these facilities—except as a client—and also prohibits them from working or volunteering in foster homes, child day care facilities, or children’s residential facilities licensed by Social Services.
Units That Oversee
Registered Sex Offender Reviews
Children and Family Services Division
Performance and Program Improvement Unit
Oversees foster homes approved by county child welfare services agencies.
Community Care Licensing Division
Investigates state-licensed children’s residential facilities, adult and senior care facilities, and child care facilities.
Statewide Children’s Residential Program Office
Oversees county-licensed foster family homes.
Statewide Child Care Program Office
Oversees county-licensed family child care homes.
Sources: California Department of Social Services’ documents, which include an investigative procedure document, an address comparison flowchart, and an all-county letter it issued in October 2013 (No.13–64).
At the end of 2011, in response to a recommendation from our October 2011 audit report,1 Social Services began to compare the addresses of registered sex offenders with the addresses of licensed facilities and foster homes (address comparisons), and it has continued to do so. When an address comparison identifies a potential match, Social Services reviews the match in a two‑step process. First, it conducts a preliminary screening process to safely eliminate address matches that do not require an on‑site investigation. If it cannot effectively eliminate an address match through its screening process, Social Services then initiates an investigation to determine if a sex offender is inappropriately residing or working in a licensed facility or foster home. Social Services divides the responsibility for conducting or overseeing these investigations among four units within the licensing and family services divisions, as shown in the text box. The Investigations Branch directly investigates registered sex offenders in state‑licensed facilities, while the other three units delegate the responsibility for conducting investigations of the various facilities listed in the text box to county licensing or CWS staff. Despite differences in how the reviews are carried out, Social Services indicated that each unit is responsible for initiating and tracking the outcome of the address matches it reviews or is charged with overseeing.
Placement of Children in Foster Homes
Within California’s CWS system, counties are generally responsible for the placement of children removed from their original homes. However, Social Services has a role in overseeing these placement practices. For example, as a condition of receiving federal funding, federal law generally requires these children to be placed in the least restrictive, most familylike environment possible. To keep children in these environments, Social Services’ regulations require agencies to attempt to place children in the following priority order:
- Home of the child’s noncustodial parent, relatives, or extended family members.
- Licensed foster homes or homes certified by foster family agencies.
- Group homes.
- Specialized treatment facilities.
For placement in group homes and in specialized treatment facilities, Social Services requires a written justification to be included in the child’s case plan. As we described in our October 2011 audit report, the payment rates to foster family agencies are much higher than those for licensed foster homes because these rates assume an elevated level of treatment needs for a child. However, Social Services does not require counties to document these treatment needs in children’s case plans before placing the children with foster family agencies. In that same audit report, we also expressed concern about the dramatic growth in counties’ use of foster family agencies and the lack of support to justify the payment rate that Social Services established for these agencies.
Scope and Methodology
The California State Auditor’s practice is to occasionally follow up on past audit reports to verify agencies’ assertions regarding their implementation of our recommendations. For this follow‑up audit, we focused on two areas previously covered in our October 2011 audit: registered sex offender address comparisons and foster family agency placements. We interviewed staff and reviewed documentation supporting Social Services’ implementation of our recommendations specific to these areas.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, whose standards we are statutorily required to follow, requires us to assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of computer‑processed information that is used to support our findings, conclusions, or recommendations. In our 2011 audit, we found Social Services’ case management and licensing information systems, which contain placement data and applicable addresses, to be of undetermined reliability because we found that Social Services and counties had insufficient source documentation for many of the key fields used in our analysis. Because of this known limitation, and because of the limited nature of this follow‑up audit, we did not conduct a data reliability assessment on Social Services’ placement data or on data used in its address comparisons. Nevertheless, we believe we have gathered sufficient evidence to support our findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
1 This report is titled Child Welfare Services: California Can and Must Provide Better Protection and Support for Abused and Neglected Children, Report 2011‑101.1. Go back to text