The Kern County Department of Human Services' Family Preservation Bureau (department) and the Juvenile Court (juvenile court) of the Kern County Superior Court are responsible for providing protective services to children who are at risk of being abused or neglected by a parent or guardian. The California Department of Social Services (DSS) is responsible for supervising the statewide system of child welfare services, including child protective services. In our review of the department and the juvenile court, we identified problems at three points where critical decisions are made: in the department's emergency response to its allegations, in its investigation of these allegations, and in the juvenile court's administration of hearings. In addition, we noted that the DSS has only recently improved its efforts to monitor child protective services in the State.
In our review of the department, we found the following weaknesses:
· Its emergency response phone room staff do not always use established checklists to ensure proper decisions are made.
· Investigation unit staff do not always initiate or complete investigations promptly, obtain information from collateral contacts, complete risk assessments in determining the risk of future abuse or neglect, hold required strategy conferences between supervisors and staff when investigating a referral for a family previously investigated, or provide feedback to mandated reporters.
· The Court Intake, Family Maintenance, Family Reunification, and Permanent Placement sections do not always visit the abused or neglected children or the parents in accordance with timelines established by law.
These weaknesses have been caused in part by a dramatic increase in referrals over the past few years. However, the department's ineffective management of its operations is also a factor. For example, the department does not always provide prompt or effective supervisory reviews of its social workers' performances. Further, the department has not established a systematic method of monitoring its employees' workloads, nor has it developed procedures for its employees to follow in providing child protective services.
We found that the juvenile court is generally effective in adjudicating the cases of abuse and neglect that the department brings to it. However, because it has only one judge to preside over contested cases, the juvenile court often continues hearings, which lengthens the time that minors must remain in a contested dependency proceeding. Lengthy proceedings may add to the degree of stress placed on minors by the dependency process. Furthermore, we found that the juvenile court does not have an information system to monitor its workload or actions and to determine how it is operating.
Our review also disclosed that the DSS has not always fulfilled all of its responsibilities in implementing and maintaining a statewide system of child protective services. Specifically, until fiscal year 1996-97, the DSS had not conducted timely compliance reviews of the counties' child protective services programs and did not ensure that those reviews included an evaluation of the counties' emergency response or administrative practices. We also noted that the DSS does not track the number of child deaths that occurred due to abuse and neglect. Without timely compliance reviews of county child protective services agencies, the DSS cannot be assured that children in the State are protected from abuse and neglect. Further, because the DSS does not obtain information regarding child deaths due to abuse and neglect, the DSS may not be able to identify county or systemic weaknesses that require regulatory or statutory change to properly address those weaknesses. Recently, the DSS has shown leadership in improving the child protective services program in certain areas, such as developing a research-based, statewide risk-assessment tool and establishing regional training academies.
However, the DSS needs to provide more guidance to counties that provide child protective services. As part of this audit, we surveyed all 58 counties in the State and found that many counties experience the same problems we identified in Kern County. For example, of the 46 counties responding, we noted the following:
· None of the counties used research-based risk assessments.
· Forty do not have quality assurance positions within their organizations to monitor the quality and effectiveness of the services they deliver.
· Forty have not identified outcomes by which to measure effectiveness.
· Fourteen have no method to monitor social worker workload.
· Only seven have developed caseload standards for social workers.
· Twenty-five do not have policies and procedures manuals for employees to follow in providing child protective services.
· Between 1994 and 1996, 295 children died as a result of abuse or neglect.
· Twenty do not review child death cases to determine if county policies or practices need to be revised.
To ensure that it provides prompt, effective child protective services, the department should:
· Ensure that its supervisors provide prompt, effective reviews of its social workers' performances.
· Ensure that its social workers initiate investigations of immediate and 10-day referrals within required time frames and complete the resulting case plan within 30 days.
· Institute a tracking system that will allow it to monitor the caseloads and workloads of its employees.
· Develop a caseload standard for each of its sections so that it can better determine when social workers are overburdened.
· Once the department has developed an effective caseload and workload tracking system and has established a caseload standard for its social workers, it should ensure that it has sufficient staff to stay within its caseload standard.
· Develop procedures for its employees to follow in providing child protective services.
To ensure that it provides appropriate and timely permanent placements to children within its purview, the juvenile court should:
· Implement an information system that would allow it to
· monitor continuances and their causes,
· monitor compliance with statutory hearing and process timelines, and
· provide other pertinent management information such as court workload statistics.
· Consider implementing a mediation program.
· Consider assigning a presiding judge to at least a three-year term in accordance with local and state rules of court.
To prevent unnecessary continuances and shorten case processing times, the department should ensure that it submits its reports to the juvenile court at least 48 hours prior to the hearing date, that it submits transport orders promptly, and that it provides adequate notice of dependency hearings to required parties.
To strengthen its leadership role and improve its oversight of the State's child protective services, the DSS should:
· Continue with its schedule to review each county for compliance at least once every four years until it completes the implementation of its statewide automated child welfare services system, and then every three years thereafter.
· Review the counties' emergency response systems and administrative practices as part of its comprehensive monitoring approach.
· Continue to provide leadership to county child welfare agencies through progressive child welfare initiatives.
To ensure that the State is able to better identify trends and county and statewide systemic weaknesses in child welfare services, the Legislature should:
· Continue the pilot project initially started to establish a standardized child death reporting form.
· Require the appropriate state agency to establish a statewide child abuse and neglect fatality database using the processes developed by the pilot project.
The department generally agrees with the findings in our report, noting that it has already begun to address many of our recommendations. The department believes that its new Child Welfare Services Case Management System will help it address many of the issues we raise in our report.
In addition, the juvenile court generally agrees with the recommendations contained in our report, noting that it also has begun implementing many of our recommendations. However, the juvenile court disagrees on the effect that judicial officer turnover has on dependency proceedings.
Finally, the DSS generally agrees with the recommendations made in our report, noting that it has already implemented many of them.