The federal government has given California bad marks on monitoring the well-being of children in foster care.
State officials were slow to investigate complaints of abuse or neglect, failed to notify investigators of serious sexual abuse allegations and didn’t follow up to ensure cases were resolved, according to an audit released late Monday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.
In some cases, investigations took more than a year to complete, according to the report. It said these problems arose either because officials didn’t follow procedures or because they had not been properly trained to handle complaints. An audit released in May by the inspector general revealed similar deficiencies in the foster care agency of Texas.
Michael Weston, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, said his agency agreed with the report’s findings, which were provided to the agency earlier, and either has implemented or is working on the changes recommended by federal auditors. The auditors noted that the agency has re-hired former employees to support investigations of complaints and has created dashboards for managers to better track the progress of investigations.
The state agency oversees about 60,000 children under 18 who are in foster care. Federal auditors reviewed 100 cases selected from among the nearly 6,200 complaint investigations completed by the state agency between 2013 and 2015.
California’s child welfare system has been scrutinized in recent years as media reports have highlighted the overuse of powerful psychiatric drugs and the dubious arrests of foster children in temporary shelters around the state. The state has been criticized previously for lagging on investigations of abuse and neglect. California’s privatization of some foster care, leaving independent agencies to recruit and oversee foster families, also has raised concerns.
Child welfare experts say that it’s important to investigate reports of abuse or neglect in foster homes quickly and thoroughly because the consequences for vulnerable children can be severe, even fatal. A 4-year-old Sacramento girl was killed in her foster home in 2010, apparently burned by a Molotov cocktail. She previously had been injured while in foster care, according to media reports.
The state agency’s official goal is to investigate all cases within 90 days. But the federal audit found that in some cases, no investigative actions were logged for up to 15 months, suggesting that no one was working on them. In addition, investigators either did not visit or could not provide proof that they had visited the foster family home, group home or foster care agency cited in the complaint within the 10 days required by law.
“The failure to complete investigations in a timely manner — noted in 78 of 100 complaints — is the most egregious finding in the report,” Bill Grimm, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, wrote in an email.
Grimm said the agency’s existing goal of investigating abuse or neglect complaints within 90 days “should be unacceptable” because the goal is only 30 days for children who are not in foster care.
If investigations aren’t completed promptly, children who have been maltreated often move on to other foster care placements “and critical information is lost,” he said.
Stacy Castle, chairwoman of the Child Abuse Council of Santa Clara County, said she and her colleagues have long worried about how complaints of child abuse against all children — including foster children — were logged and investigated by the state. But she said a new manager at the California Department of Social Services earlier this year improved the situation by adding staff to the complaint hotline and extending its hours.
“There’s been a significant turnaround in a lot of these” issues raised by the audit, Castle said.