Special Report: Child Protective Services
The 1998-1999 Sacramento County Grand Jury spent considerable time reviewing the policies, procedures, organizational structure and operations of Sacramento County Child Protective Services (CPS). Because of a policy shift toward child protection as opposed to family reunification, resulting from several high-profile cases, approximately 230 children each month are being brought into County protective custody, according to CPS officials. This represents a sea change over CPS volume prior to 1995-1996, when 35 to 50 children per month entered CPS custody. As a result, CPS has come under considerable scrutiny by the public and press. The Grand Jury focus on CPS is a predictable consequence of these County activities.
As a result of complaints, the Grand Jury reviewed specific case files and interviewed caseworkers with regard to children in protective custody. Although the number of files reviewed was limited, the Grand Jury was impressed with the thoroughness of the investigations and the dedication of CPS staff to the resolution of custody issues as detailed in the files.
However, during the course of its investigation, the Grand Jury was hindered by the slow responses and recalcitrance of CPS administrators to answer our requests. CPS failed to provide requested information in a timely manner to the Grand Jury. This created an unnecessary impediment to the Grand Jury's investigation. Dialogue between CPS and the Grand Jury improved, however, after the recent appointment of a new director to the department.
The Grand Jury was particularly concerned with the Emergency Response Unit (ERU). ERU receives, investigates and assesses allegations of child abuse or neglect 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Grand Jury focused its investigation on the critical issues of staffing, training and caseloads.
The Grand Jury was informed that newly-hired caseworkers are given "Induction Training." A detailed and comprehensive training manual is provided to them.
Completing a core curriculum is also required for child caseworkers. The University of California, Davis Extension (UCD) teaches this curriculum, in a format of four modules of three days each. This is a popular training program for caseworkers throughout Northern California, and access to the program for Sacramento County workers is sometimes delayed because of enrollment limitations. Additionally, caseworkers are required to complete 30 hours of continuing education units (CEUs) each year.
The Grand Jury was informed that the CPS administration considers the training of newly-hired caseworkers a priority. The administration has made available both staff resources and funds needed to conduct a comprehensive training program. To gain additional perspective on the CPS staff training, the Grand Jury interviewed several CPS rank and file employees and supervisors. The Grand Jury was informed that training for caseworkers is improving, albeit slowly. Staff advised that, since 1997, there has been improvement in employee morale and support for personnel by top administrators of the department. The Grand Jury heard favorable comments about the training and was told a detailed record is maintained by each supervisor regarding the accomplishments of staff. The Grand Jury was informed that, in an effort to standardize training, the State of California is now considering imposing an additional formal training program for all caseworkers. The Grand Jury learned that the training coordinator is in charge of recruitment for the department.
In late 1998 the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors authorized an additional 100 CPS caseworker positions. At the time of its interview with the training coordinator, the Grand Jury was advised that there were 87 caseworker job openings. A department that has historically required a master's degree at the entry level for caseworkers, CPS now finds itself having to reduce the requirements to a bachelor's degree to obtain recruits. There have been 83 bachelor's "underfill" positions established, out of a total of 435, because of the severe shortage of persons holding masters of social work, counseling and other relevant degrees Training and further education of the persons with bachelor's degrees is critical, because they lack the field expertise required of those with master's degrees. The Grand Jury was told that this requires quality training to be provided by first-line supervisors. These supervisors also must encourage employees with bachelor's degrees to pursue their masters' degrees. The Grand Jury was assured that those objectives are department policy.
The Grand Jury inquired whether job rotation is used to enhance the caseworkers' knowledge of the department's operations as well as their related job performance. The Grand Jury was told that job rotation is not under consideration at this time because continuity is considered to be a more important component in casework.
The Grand Jury was informed that the department has 28 unfunded "recruitment allotment" positions. These positions are to be used for hiring new graduates and replacing experienced personnel lost through attrition. This appears to solve the recruitment problem associated with employment offers either before graduation or in anticipation of separation, resignation or retirement. However, the department cannot offer a position until the graduate actually has a degree in hand and is on the eligibility list, or the departing employee has vacated the position.
The Grand Jury was provided with the chart shown which clearly outlines the staffing and associated high caseload problems in this critical area:
It is important to understand that the California Department of Social Services (DSS) staffing criteria for the purpose of State of California reimbursement is 15.4 cases per worker. Information provided by CPS indicates the end-of-the-month average caseload is 26 cases per ERU caseworker.
Findings and Recommendations
Finding #1: The Grand Jury was told that the most critical needs of the department are filling vacancies and reducing turnover; meeting these two objectives would enable the department to effectively cope with the workload. One factor in the high rate of turnover is the ease of transfer within the County. This works to CPS's disadvantage, especially in the ERU, which has experienced extremely high personnel losses. Caseworkers directly handling cases have the most stressful workload in the department. Contributing to the stress is the lack of personnel, the need to handle the workload of vacant positions, the necessity of assuming the burden of providing on-the-job training and the oversight of the new hires until they have reached an acceptable experience level.
The Grand Jury was told the County has provided training and additional positions to respond to the public's recent outcry regarding the safety of children served by the ERU. The Grand Jury believes these two actions, while appearing to answer criticisms leveled at the County, have been minimally effective. The chart clearly shows the turnover rate has in fact exceeded the recruitment rate in some months but the average net result has been no improvement in filling caseworker positions nor in reducing the excessive workload. The Grand Jury was also told that these problems were attributable to the lack of candidates, lack of graduates with appropriate degrees, lack of ability to provide job offers because of civil service rules and the inability to control intra- and interdepartmental transfers because of union contracts.
The Grand Jury believes that regardless of the reasons stated, CPS is ultimately responsible for properly staffing its department to ensure the safety of children in Sacramento County. The County, including Human Resources, the Civil Service Commission and the Real Estate Division, have not, however, been successful in solving these problems with CPS. A workable solution requires that the entire County, starting with the County Executive, make staffing, training and obtaining facilities a priority. Although the media attention has waned since the tragic deaths of children in 1997, changes and assistance need to be made immediately available to CPS to ensure similar problems do not occur in the future.
Recommendation #1: The County Executive shall establish a multi-agency task force no later than September 1, 1999, to address the issue of proper staffing and employee retention within CPS. This task force should include members from all departments which provide support to CPS.
The task force shall provide a detailed report to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors no later than December 15, 1999, with a strategy to resolve the staffing, caseload and associated problems. A copy of the report shall also be made available to the 1999-2000 Sacramento County Grand Jury.
Finding #2: The Grand Jury believes that there is a serious need to determine, by a simple method, how many cases any particular caseworker is handling at a given time. This will provide management with a tool to make informed staffing decisions. There does not appear to be a long-term strategy in place that would secure adequate staffing for the department. Such a plan is critical to CPS's success. The Grand Jury was told that this issue is being addressed in a Division Data Book that is being developed by CPS.
Recommendation #2: CPS shall complete the Division Data Book and implement it no later than September 30, 1999. A copy of the book shall also be made available to the 1999-2000 Sacramento County Grand Jury.
Conclusion: Based upon the Grand Jury's review of limited files, it appears that the technical handling of CPS cases is adequate. However, the department's management and long-term planning requires immediate attention. The Grand Jury was informed that CPS has recently taken steps to improve accountability and responsibility, but there remains a serious need for the entire management team to focus on the department's goals and simply "make it happen." The Grand Jury was unable to find many meaningful attempts to creatively handle these issues. Responsibility and accountability should be more than buzzwords. The Grand Jury's concerns require immediate attention to ensure the safety of the children of Sacramento County. The Department of Health and Human Services, as well as CPS, is directly responsible for ensuring that qualified people and the optimum authorized staffing levels are met and maintained. Since this department has a critical role in the protection of children, there is no acceptable reason why such basic problems have not been resolved.
A Response is Required
The California Penal Code requires the Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services and the County Executive to respond in writing to the Grand Jury's recommendations contained in this report, and to submit their responses to the presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court by September 30, 1999. The County Executive response may be limited to Recommendation #1; the Department of Health and Human Services shall respond to all recommendations.