Friday, March 13, 2009

Children are dying due to lack of timely intervention and oversight

More children dying of abuse, neglect in Sacramento County
Lundstom, Marjie and Sam Stanton. Sacramento Bee, March 10, 2009.

The number of children who died of abuse and neglect shot up in Sacramento County last year, nearly triple the previous year's toll, a new report has found.

Eleven children died in 2008 from abuse and neglect, compared with four in 2007, according to a self-assessment from Child Protective Services scheduled for delivery to the Board of Supervisors today.

The assessment, required every three years, found that CPS has fallen significantly below the state average for how quickly social workers respond to reports of possible abuse. Of all referrals requiring an in-person response, Sacramento CPS fell to 82 percent for those requiring a contact within 24 hours – well below the 96 percent state average – in the first quarter of 2008.

The report also revealed a worsening record in frequency of local CPS workers' visits to clients' homes. In March 2008, 89 percent of Sacramento children who required monthly CPS visits received them, down from 98 percent in March 2006 and March 2007.

The decline in response occurred even as fewer CPS cases were being opened for investigation, the report noted.

Release of the report comes as CPS finds itself under scrutiny for a series of problems, ranging from the increase in child deaths to revelations that documents inside the agency have been altered – issues disclosed by an 18-month Bee investigation. Soon, a county audit of the agency is expected to be released, and a grand jury report on CPS also is under way.

Until now, CPS has largely blamed its problems on individual workers and their failure to follow policies and procedures.

But this document reveals more systemic issues within the agency, including a widespread lack of training, poorly prepared supervisors, high caseload and "slow and burdensome" discipline for problem workers.

Overall, the report concluded, CPS needs to do more to protect vulnerable children. The last time Sacramento child abuse and neglect deaths hit double digits was in 1999, according to Child Death Review Team figures, which differ slightly from the county's.

"Since March 2008, there has been a significant rise in child abuse-related deaths within Sacramento County," said the report from Lynn Frank, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CPS.

Though the report made it clear that "not all of the children were known to Sacramento County CPS prior to their deaths," it said that "immediate action has been taken to examine the circumstances of each death and to examine policies and practice as they relate to those circumstances."

The circumstances of how some children died last year illustrate failings that CPS identified in its own assessment.

For instance, 4-year-old Jahmaurae Allen died July 21. The social worker in that case failed to connect with the family for seven days after a doctor reported suspicious injuries to CPS, even though the agency had flagged the situation for an "immediate response," or contact within 24 hours.

When Jahmaurae's social worker did meet with the family, she closed the case after a cursory review. The boy died one month later; the mother's live-in boyfriend faces murder charges.

The agency pointed out in its new report that it has reduced the percentage of children being sent back to foster care after an earlier removal from their homes. This "foster care re-entry" declined from 21.9 percent of kids returning to foster care in 2004 to 15.8 percent in 2006-07, the most recent data available.

This trend, though, did not help 3-year-old Valeeya Brazile, who died Feb. 5 after being removed from her mother for violence. The little girl was placed with a stable foster family where, by all accounts, she was happy and thriving. She was returned home less than four months later and, the following year, was beaten to death – allegedly by the mother's boyfriend.

Both Valeeya's and Jahmaurae's mothers also face child endangerment charges.

In acknowledging the agency's weaknesses, the report stated that CPS faces high worker turnover, a lack of experienced workers and daunting caseloads.

CPS caseloads in its various programs range from an average 10.6 cases per worker each month to as many as 46.3 cases per month.

The agency has taken pride in recent years in its use of "Structured Decision Making," a check-off list that provides guidance to front-line workers assessing safety and risk in troubled families.

But the new report warns – yet again – that the agency's use of SDM has been "inaccurate and inconsistent."

Last December, 2-year-old twins were shot to death by their father, two years after CPS had used SDM to assess the family following an incident with an older child.

In 2006, the 12-year-old girl – who had three siblings – had told authorities that her stepfather had been beating her with a stick, forcing her to go without food, shaving her head and making her sleep in the garage without blankets, according to CPS documents.

Ultimately, the agency determined that the four children's risk of neglect was "moderate" and their risk of abuse was "low," the documents show. A safety assessment determined that there were "no children likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm."

Two years later, the twins, along with their mother, were shot to death in their south Sacramento home. The father committed suicide.

Over the years, the CPS Oversight Committee has criticized the agency for how it evaluates potential risk to children. The citizens committee, formed in the aftermath of 3-year-old Adrian Conway's brutal 1996 death, has repeatedly told the Board of Supervisors that CPS workers and supervisors are failing to properly use the tools that help assess a child's current safety and future risk of harm.

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