Our review of the child welfare services (CWS) system, which the Department of Social Services (Social Services) oversees, revealed the following:
The Department of Social Services (Social Services) oversees the efforts of county child welfare services (CWS) agencies to protect California children from abuse and neglect. When these agencies determine that children's safety is at risk, they have the authority to remove them from their homes and place them with relatives, foster parents, or group homes (placements). Both Social Services and county CWS agencies need to better ensure that these placements are safe. Specifically, Social Services could make better use of the Department of Justice's (Justice) Sex and Arson Registry (sex offender registry) to ensure that sex offenders are not living or working among children in the CWS system. We compared the addresses of sex offenders in this registry with the addresses of Social Services' and county's licensed facilities, as well as the addresses of CWS placements, and found over 1,000 address matches, nearly 600 of which are high risk and in need of immediate investigation.
We provided these address matches to Social Services in July 2011. In October 2011 Social Services stated that it and county CWS agencies had investigated 99 percent of the address matches. Social Services indicates it has begun legal actions against eight licensees (four temporary suspension orders and four license revocations) and issued 36 immediate exclusion orders (orders barring individuals from licensed facilities). In six of the eight legal actions, Social Services found registered sex offenders living or present in licensed facilities. The department added that counties found 36 registered sex offenders having "some association" with county foster homes and took actions, including removing foster children from homes and ordering registered sex offenders out of homes.
We also found that Social Services' established oversight mechanisms—on-site reviews of its licensed facilities every five years and licensing reviews of county CWS agencies to which it has delegated licensing authority every three years—are lagging behind statutory requirements and department-set goals. Social Services cites the lack of resources as the primary reason why it has not implemented an automated sex offender address match and why its oversight mechanisms are falling short of requirements.
For their part, the county CWS agencies appear to be performing required background checks of applicable individuals before placing children in foster homes and generally appear to remove children quickly if the home is found to be inappropriate. However, they could improve their follow-up and communication related to allegations against a foster home or parent. Specifically, these agencies do not consistently notify Social Services' Community Care Licensing Division of allegations involving its licensees, and they do not always forward required information regarding instances of abuse or neglect to Justice.
While the number of children in placement has dramatically decreased in the last 10 years, the percentage of children placed with foster family agencies, which recruit and certify foster homes and whose monthly compensation is significantly higher than state- or county-licensed foster homes, has continued to increase. The dramatic growth in the use of foster family agencies, which originally were meant to be a substitute for group homes for children with elevated treatment needs, has been accompanied by a matching drop in the percentage of children placed in state- and county-licensed foster homes and a fairly steady percentage of children in group home placements. These data indicate that, rather than significantly reducing expensive group home placements, growth in foster family agencies has reduced relatively inexpensive licensed foster home placements.
A potential explanation for this trend is that, in contrast to requirements related to group home placements, Social Services does not require county CWS agencies to document the treatment needs of children placed with foster family agencies. The counties we visited admitted that some placements with foster family agencies are a function of convenience and necessity—for example, the unavailability of state- or county-licensed foster homes—and not the elevated treatment needs of children. Additionally, until a recent lawsuit, foster homes certified under foster family agencies received significantly higher monthly payments than foster homes licensed by the State or a county. County officials indicated that this pay differential contributed to their difficulty in recruiting licensed foster homes. We estimate that the growth in the percentage of placements with foster family agencies has resulted in spending an additional $327 million in foster care payments between 2001 and 2010-costing an additional $61 million in 2010 alone.
Our examination of the investigatory and ongoing case management practices of county CWS agencies found that they are generally complying with state regulations and county policies. However, improvements in the timeliness of investigations and in the consistency of ongoing case management visits are still needed. In recent years Social Services, which provides leadership and oversight to county CWS agencies, has shifted from a monitoring system focused solely on regulatory compliance to an accountability system that measures outcomes for children who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, abuse or neglect (outcome review). This outcome review appears to have resulted in some improved compliance with investigatory and case management requirements. Even so, Social Services could improve some of its measures of system performance and could use its Child Welfare Services/Case Management System (CWS/CMS) to determine if efforts to reduce the number of cases or referrals per worker (caseloads) have been effective.
Although the State has various means of analyzing child deaths and identifying improvements that can be made, one of the more effective locations for this type of review resides at the local level, within the county CWS agencies that are often most familiar with local and family-specific histories. While not required by law to do so, some agencies have instituted formal death reviews that examine what the agencies could have done differently or better to prevent the death of the child. However, other counties are missing opportunities to identify potential improvements because they do not conduct such reviews. Social Services could encourage this practice by including information on whether these death reviews took place in its annual report to the Legislature on child deaths.
To ensure that vulnerable individuals, including foster children, are safe from sex offenders, Social Services should complete a follow-up on any remaining address matches our office provided in July 2011 and take appropriate actions, as well as relay information to Justice or local law enforcement for any sex offenders not in compliance with registration laws.
Social Services should conduct regular address comparisons using Justice's sex offender registry and its Licensing Information System and CWS/CMS. If Social Services believes it needs additional resources to do so, it should justify and seek the appropriate level of funding.
To provide sufficient oversight of county CWS agencies with delegated authority to license foster homes, Social Services should complete comprehensive reviews of these agencies' licensing activities at least once every three years.
To ensure that its licensees (state-licensed foster homes, foster family agencies, and group homes) are in compliance with applicable requirements and that children are protected, Social Services should complete on-site reviews at least once every five years as required by state law.
To ensure that county CWS agencies send required reports of abuse and neglect to Justice, Social Services should remind the agencies of applicable requirements and examine the feasibility of using CWS/CMS to track compliance with these statutory provisions.
To ensure that payments to foster family agencies are appropriate, Social Services needs to create and monitor compliance with clear requirements specifying that children placed with these agencies must have elevated treatment needs that would require a group home placement if not for the existence of these agencies' programs.
To achieve greater cooperation from county CWS agencies and to make it possible for some of these agencies to improve their placement practices, Social Services should develop a funding alternative that allows the agencies to retain a portion of state funds they save as a result of reducing their reliance on foster family agencies and only making placements with those agencies when justified by the elevated treatment needs of a child.
Social Services should refine and use CWS/CMS to calculate and report county CWS caseloads.
To improve agency practices and increase the safety of children within the CWS system, all agencies should formally review the services that they delivered to each child before he or she died of abuse or neglect.
To encourage counties to perform internal child death reviews for children with CWS histories, Social Services should provide in its annual report information on whether county CWS agencies conducted formal reviews of child deaths with prior CWS history.
Social Services generally agreed with our findings and recommendations and outlined actions it plans to take in response to the recommendations. In some instances, Social Services stated that it would examine our recommendations in the context of ongoing CWS reform efforts and in other instances, it disagreed with our specific recommendations but proposed alternative actions.