Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Youth needs fall through the cracks

Changes urged for Fresno Co. social services
County might disband Children and Family Services agency

Branan, Brad. Fresno Bee, Oct. 11, 2009.

Children are at the forefront of a debate over whether to change the way Fresno County delivers social services. (actually, it sounds like children are coming in dead-last)

County administrator John Navarrette wants to eliminate the Children and Family Services Department and move its work to other departments.

The department's child-welfare duties would go to the Employment and Temporary Assistance Department under a new name, the Social Services Department. The county's Behavioral Health Department would take over children's mental-health programs.

Navarrette says the changes are needed to trim costs because federal and state funding for social services is declining. By eliminating four administrative positions and making other changes to consolidate departments, the county would save more than $1 million annually through the plan, he said.

"All of us have to take a hit," he said. "We're all doing more with less."

But critics, including some county supervisors, question his estimates, and say any savings aren't worth reducing quality of service. They worry that the mission of Child Protective Services will get lost in a merger with the county's largest department.

Foster children often need mental-health counseling, so they should be served by the same department, critics add.

But Navarrette and his department heads insist services would not suffer under the plan. To appease critics, Navarrette said he included a policy guaranteeing that 25% of mental-health revenues would continue to be allocated for children.

The Board of Supervisors expects to vote on the proposal Oct. 27. If approved, the reorganization would take effect Jan. 1.

Supervisors Debbie Poochigian, Judy Case and Phil Larson say they're still studying the plan and haven't made a decision. Supervisors Henry Perea and Susan Anderson say they're opposed.

Approving the plan would bring Fresno County in line with the rest of the state, because it's the only county with a Children and Family Services Department providing both child welfare and mental-health services, Navarrette said. Officials at the California State Association of Counties and the County Welfare Directors Association of California could not confirm his statement.

Navarrette said the proposal was motivated in part by changes at Employment and Temporary Services. The department's director, Julie Hornback, announced her retirement this year, and another department official, Steven Rodriguez, left to become Madera County's top administrator.

Under Navarrette's proposal, Fresno County won't hire replacements. Instead, he would move Catherine Huerta, director of Children and Family Services, to head the new Social Services Department. Child Protective Services would be added to a department that has more than 1,500 employees and administers welfare, employment and other services.

Perea, who has criticized Child Protective Services in recent years, doesn't like the idea.

"By putting CPS in the county's largest department, children may be overlooked and put in danger," he said.

Anderson also thinks Child Protective Services won't get the oversight it needs in such a large department.

Navarrette disagreed, although he conceded that workloads would increase in the Behavioral Health and Social Services departments as supervisors assume new responsibilities.

Anderson and Perea also worry about moving children's mental-health services to the county's Behavioral Health Department, which now runs adult mental-health programs.

The idea has been proposed before, most recently by Perea. But Perea said he would only support a merger of mental-health programs if it included Child Protective Services.

Dr. Morton Rosenstein, a physician and chairman of the county's foster care oversight committee, shares Anderson's and Perea's concerns. The committee expects to make a recommendation on the proposal later this month.

"Fresno County is unique in that children's mental health works with Children and Family Services and it has worked very well," he said. If they are separated, Rosenstein said, "they won't work as well together."

Anderson also worries about communication between children's mental-health and protective care, should they be split into separate departments.

"More children's cases will fall through the cracks," she said.

Children in the foster-care system would not notice any changes and would be served by the same people who see them now, Huerta and Navarrette said.

County workers responsible for foster care would continue to communicate with those responsible for mental health, just as they do now, Navarrette said.

Curt Thornton, a member of the county's Mental Health Board, said moving children's programs to Behavioral Health would add to the burdens of an overworked management staff. The board has not made a recommendation, but Thornton said he is leaning toward opposing the plan.

"You've had someone who has been a virtual workaholic, and I don't know how much longer she's going to last," he said, referring to Behavioral Health director Giang Nguyen. "We're talking about a fundamental change."

Nguyen doesn't dispute his assessment, but still supports the plan. "The workload will increase for everyone," she said.

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