State auditor cites failure to protect foster youth from sex offenders

California's auditor has issued a stark assessment of the state Social Services Department's safeguards for foster youth, highlighting breakdowns that may have put children at risk and led to millions of wasted dollars.

The report, issued Thursday, said an initial review uncovered up to 8,600 children who could have come into contact with sex offenders. The finding was based on a preliminary cross-check that showed possible overlaps between the addresses of children in the foster care data base and addresses in the state's sex offender registry.

The audit also chastised the social services department for failing to check, within a required 45-day deadline, the addresses of another 400 children that workers flagged as potentially matching those of sex offenders,

In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, State Auditor Elaine M. Howle said the department "needs to better account for the address matches it identifies and better document its review procedures."

Howle first took aim at the state's shoddy review of sex offenders in the foster care system in 2008, finding that workers did not have access to the full sex offender registry. In response, the department gained access, but a 2011 audit found that it did not assign workers to check the registry.

The audit issued this week reported that it took until 2013 for the department to fully utilize the registry. Between 2011 and 2014, cross-checking substantiated 216 instances of children coming into contact with registered sex offenders who were either living in foster homes or working for foster care agencies.

Michael Weston, a spokesman for department director William Lightbourne, said that the 8,600 children who do not have a documented review of their potential contact with sex offenders would be fully evaluated within 60 days.

"We are working very diligently," he said. He added that, in some cases, the children identified as potentially at risk might be the brothers and sisters of children whose situations social workers did review, and then neglected to include the siblings in their paperwork.

The auditor also criticized the department's handling of private foster family agencies that are hired by counties to recruit and supervise foster parents.

A 2011 audit recommended that the state review why the private agencies receive payment rates significantly higher than foster parents who are directly recruited and supervised by county government social workers. It also recommended that social workers restore preferences for homes directly overseen by government social workers.

The social services department did not implement either recommendation, costing taxpayers up to $116 million over the next five years, the latest audit said.

A Times investigation reported in 2013 that the state's private foster family system — the largest in the nation — has become more dangerous than the government-run homes it largely has replaced.

Those living in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children in state-supervised foster family homes, according to a Times analysis of more than 1 million child abuse hotline investigations over three years.

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