Report 2011-101.2 Summary - March 2012

Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services:

Management Instability Hampered Efforts to Better Protect Children

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (department), highlighted the following:

  • Although the department began most investigations on time, it struggled to complete many of them within requisite time frames.
  • To best monitor a child's safety, monthly visits with a child and family should be in the home, yet for three or more consecutive months in seven of the 30 cases we reviewed, visits occurred outside the children's homes.
  • Of 20 placements that we reviewed, we found that the department, in nine instances, did not complete required assessments and background checks before placing children with relatives.
  • Delays in the department completing required assessments of homes and caregivers resulted in nearly 900 children living in relative placements that the department later determined to be unsafe or inappropriate.
  • Although the department generally acted quickly to remove children from potentially unsafe placements, it did not always notify requisite oversight entities of allegations of abuse or neglect.
  • A general instability in management has hampered the department's ability to address its long-standing problems such as completing timely investigations and placement assessments.
  • The turnover in key management positions has impeded the department's ability to develop and implement a strategic plan.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The Department of Children and Family Services (department)—the local agency responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County—underperformed in the delivery of some key services, but it generally satisfied other state requirements. The department is required to begin and complete its investigations of abuse or neglect allegations (referrals) within certain time frames to ensure the safety of children. Although the department began most investigations on time, it struggled to complete many of them within requisite time frames. In July 2010 the department reported it had 9,300 investigations that were open longer than 30 days, the maximum time period allowed by state regulations. Although this backlog has decreased substantially, in January 2012 it was still 3,200, more than twice as large as it was in July 2009.

After a referral is substantiated, it can become a case, and social workers are then required to visit monthly with a child and family until safety and other concerns are resolved. To best accomplish the purposes of these visits (for example, monitoring the child's safety), social workers should conduct these visits in the home. The department's policy confirms this thought, stating that visits outside the home should be the exception instead of the rule. The department generally conducted these ongoing case visits; however, they occurred outside the children's homes for three or more consecutive months in seven of the 30 cases we reviewed.

Both investigatory and ongoing visits can lead to a social worker removing a child from a home. If this occurs, the social worker needs to find an out-of-home placement for the child. Although the California Department of Social Services (Social Services) licenses foster homes in Los Angeles County, the county department is responsible for completing required home assessments and criminal background checks before placing children with relatives. Placing children in unassessed homes potentially exposes them to dangerous people and environments. Our review of 20 placements found that the department, in nine instances, did not complete required assessments and background checks before placing children with relatives. Our analysis of department data further indicate that the department placed a large number of children with relatives before the department's home assessment unit determined whether the placements were safe and appropriate. From 2008 to 2010, the department completed required assessments of less than 31 percent of homes and caregivers before placing children with relatives. This delay resulted in nearly 900 children living in placements that the department later determined to be unsafe or inappropriate. Even after these determinations, these children typically remained in the homes for nearly a month and a half before the department removed them or reassessed and approved the placement.

Further, our analysis of department data indicated that not completing timely investigations and placement assessments has been a long-standing problem. To address this problem, the department developed internal policies and performance measures that allowed it to complete investigations within 60 days (instead of the 30 days required in regulation) and to complete required assessments within 30 days of social workers notifying the department's home assessment unit of a placement (instead of before placement, as required in state law). Although the department obtained temporary approval from Social Services for its 60-day investigatory time frame, we believe that these policies and measurements have not served the department well in its efforts to improve the timeliness of its services and provide for the safety of children.

In response to findings from our office's October 2011 child welfare services (CWS) report,1 Social Services directed the department to follow up on 126 referrals in which the registered addresses of sex offenders matched the address of a child in a CWS placement in Los Angeles County. As a result of its investigations, the department remedied three situations in which children were living with sex offenders by having the sex offender removed or by removing the child from the home. The investigations also resulted in the correction of sex offenders' addresses and numerous social-worker-to-family dialogues about who may associate with children in the CWS system. This success in protecting children from sex offenders highlights the positive results that can ensue from Social Services using information available to it.

Although the department generally acted quickly to remove children from potentially unsafe placements, it did not always notify requisite oversight entities of allegations of abuse or neglect. Until recently, it was required to notify the California Department of Justice (DOJ) of all alleged abuse when a social worker determines that allegations of physical abuse are either substantiated or inconclusive. However, the department submitted reports to DOJ for only three of the eight cases we reviewed that required such a report. By not submitting these reports, the department has limited its ability to later use DOJ's database to ensure that children are placed only in safe environments.

A general instability in management has hampered the department's ability to address its long-standing problems. Department officials pointed to a period of time when new, potentially unrealistic policies were being created at a rapid pace in response to pressure from outside stakeholders. These policies contributed to a backlog of uncompleted investigations and were eventually revised or rescinded. Such events speak to a pattern, identified by an external management consultant over a decade ago, of intense pressure from numerous stakeholders and the difficulty this large department has had staying on one unified course. In just over a year, the department had four different directors, and it has experienced high turnover in other key management positions as well. The turnover has impeded the department's ability to develop and implement a strategic plan that would have provided cohesiveness to its various initiatives and communicated a clear vision to department staff and external stakeholders.

Despite its problems, numerous indicators point to a department positioned to overcome its challenges. The county's board of supervisors has hired a permanent director who recently moved forward, with input from staff, on a strategic plan that lays out a long-term course for the department. Additionally, while the annual turnover rate for key management positions over the five years we reviewed was 25 percent, it was only 4 percent for the department as a whole. National statistics for state and local government employees pegged turnover at 16 percent for the same time period. We also found that the number of cases per worker (caseload), while not at ideal levels, have been consistently lower than caseload targets established in the department's labor agreements. Finally, even though the department may have some problems localized in certain regions and work units, employees responding to our survey were generally positive about their work environment.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To ensure that child abuse and neglect allegations receive timely resolution, the department should do the following:

  • Continue to monitor the status of its backlog of investigations but revise its policies and performance measures to no longer define the backlog as investigations over 60 days old. Rather, it should emphasize completing investigations within 30 days.
  • Assess whether it needs to permanently allocate more resources to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.

To ensure that it is placing children only in safe homes, the department should measure its performance and adjust its practices to adhere to state law, which requires that all homes and caregivers be assessed prior to the placement of the child.

To ensure that social workers have as much relevant information as possible when placing children and licensing homes, the department should report allegations of abuse and neglect to DOJ and Social Services' licensing division, when required to do so.

To create and communicate its philosophy and plans, the department should complete and implement its strategic plan.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The department responded that they generally agreed with our findings and recommendations. However, the department disagreed with our finding that it often places children with relatives before conducting required home and caregiver assessments. The department believes it performed these assessments in accordance with its interpretation of state law. As we describe in our comments to their response, the department's interpretation of state law is incorrect and appears to be based on a misleading and incomplete summary of relevant statutes.


1 Child Welfare Services: California Can and Must Provide Better Protection and Support for Abused and Neglected Children (2011-101.1).


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