April 13, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
It was just a few days ago that California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly said that, if it were up to him, he’d scrap the entire Child Protective Services system in the state and start over. This report doesn’t go quite that far, but it gets close. But even at that, it fails to recommend reforms many have been calling for over many years.
On April 8, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection for Los Angeles County issued its final draft report. It will expand on the draft in the near future, but for now, the parameters of the problems it found and recommendations it makes are clear, if limited. On page three, in bold letters, the Commission announced this:
The Commission believes that there is a State of Emergency that demands a fundamental transformation of the current child protection system. Nothing short of a complete rethinking about how the County ensures safe and supportive care for abused and at risk children will lead to the seamless and comprehensive child welfare system that the County has needed for decades.
It’s only dealing with Los Angeles County, but those are words Assemblyman Donnelly could have used when talking about CPS in California generally. In general, what the Commission found were what states like Arizona have discovered once they started looking carefully at agencies charged with children’s protection. To read this short, 15-page report, is to get a good idea of the level of bureaucratic arrogance and incompetence that typifies child protective organizations across the country.
The Commission was established by the County Board of Supervisors last June. Since then it has conducted 15 public hearings and listened to over 300 “stakeholders.” Just what constitutes a “stakeholder” is never explained and how many of those were parents and children, is never mentioned. Still, the findings are bad enough. What perhaps sums up best the mess that is the county’s child protective “system” is this terse statement:
In eight months of hearing hundreds of hours of testimony, the Commission never heard a single person defend our current child safety system.
That’s zero for 300, not a good ratio. So the Commission found no one to defend current practices, but what they did find was far more troubling than just that.
The Commission heard testimony that infants spend hours on the desks of social workers due to a shortage of foster homes. Many children do not receive the minimally required monthly visits by caseworkers. Social workers, meanwhile, are overwhelmed by caseloads significantly above the national average. Similarly, the judicial system operates under the burden of too many cases to give adequate time for deliberation and all stakeholders a meaningful voice.
That’s about par for the course. In what state have we not heard exactly that? Too few caseworkers burdened with too many cases, too few supervisors to monitor their subordinates resulting in at-risk children ignored. I could have written that script myself, I’ve seen it so often.
But in Los Angeles, there’s more. There, juvenile courts are in the same boat as caseworkers; there are too few of them to do the job their tasked with. So of course there’s no possibility of careful adjudication of cases. This too we’ve seen before when judges give but a few minutes to deciding the fate of a child often too young to make its wishes known.
And still more. Newborns taken from parents and warehoused on caseworkers’ desks because they have nowhere else to go is a scandal all by itself. But the truth is that there are far more children suffering abuse and neglect than there are foster families to take them in. So what’s a caseworker to do?
But is the lack of foster parents the good news or the bad? Recall that children in foster care do worse even than children in the care of marginally abusive parents. They do worse across a whole range of markers of child well-being. They’re more likely to be abused – including sexually - or neglected. They’re more likely to become involved in drugs and alcohol, more likely to run away, more likely to suffer emotional/psychological deficits and of course do worse in school. And so it is in Los Angeles County.
The Commission also heard that children in foster care often are placed with many different families, leading to multiple school transfers and academic failure. It is not unusual for foster children to fall three years behind their peers at school.
So kids in foster care hop from family to family, often moving across town several times. That of course means changing schools, friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, neighbors, etc. It’s a system in which the children supposedly protected are essentially assured of failure. And of course, having fallen behind in school by three years or more, when they turn 18, the foster system dumps them. Stated another way, the foster system creates kids who are least capable of dealing with their lives and the world and at age 18 – with a 15-year-old’s education – washes its hands of them. No wonder such a high percentage of foster kids return to the parents whose rights to them were terminated by the same system.
Unsurprisingly, the very children who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of child protective agencies accurately perceive that they’re far down on bureaucrats’ list of priorities.
Community groups and clients of the system, who should be at the center of planning, feel devalued and unheard. Many youth reported to the Commission that they could not even reach or trust their social worker – the person that should be their most important safety resource.
But of course they’re not; caseworkers and supervisors seem to have other priorities.
Fear of liability preempts sound decision-making by the County and DCFS. Protection of the County from perceived liability at times trumps protecting children. Likewise, social worker decision-making is influenced by the fear of termination and liability.
It wasn’t long ago that we saw a caseworker in Houston tell a reporter candidly that she’d taken children from their parents, who were in no way abusing or neglecting them, that she feared retribution from her supervisor if she didn’t. So it’s no surprise that the same sort of thing happens in Los Angeles.
Then there’s the fact that the Department of Children and Family Services has had a ridiculous 18 different directors in a mere 26 years. That sort of “different year, different director, different policy” creates confusion among subordinates who quickly learn to prioritize CYA behaviors and if children take a back seat, so be it.
Astonishingly, no single entity has the authority to deal with children’s protection. No agency is charged with integrating the actions of all the agencies; no agency makes or coordinates strategy; no agency sets policy. The result is not one person at whose desk the buck stops, but many people, all of whom can pass it to someone else.
Where that phenomenon gets truly destructive is when it’s combined with our old friend secrecy. Since child protective agencies operate almost completely outside of public view, they’re free to engage in the most outrageous behaviors secure in the knowledge that, in essentially every case, no one except perhaps a supervisor will ever know. So caseworkers like the one in Houston quickly learn whom their actions need to satisfy, and that person is neither the child nor the parents of the child.
But it turns out that secrecy has worse consequences yet.
Communication among people and agencies is often limited by perceived confidentiality restrictions, to the detriment of child safety and well-being. Crucial access to information between appropriate entities, within County government and throughout the community, often is needlessly blocked in the name of confidentiality. Problems within the system remain hidden and often uncorrected because of secrecy around decision-making and other recurring failures.
That’s right, they’re not only not talking to the public or the press; they’re not talking to each other. So the police don’t know what CPS is doing and vice versa. Needless to say, that’s a prescription for the type of incompetence we see every day and that prompted Assemblyman Donnelly’s remarks.
The Commission’s report is welcome, but very much incomplete. I’ll discuss that in more detail in my next piece.
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