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California not investigating foster care complaints promptly

California not investigating foster care complaints promptly

The state agency responsible for overseeing California's foster care system is violating its own rules by failing to promptly investigate complaints of children being mistreated or living in poorly maintained homes, according to records obtained by The Times.

Nearly 1,000 complaints have languished past the California Department of Social Services' three-month deadline for completing such investigations.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Foster care: In the Sept. 13 Section A, an article about a backlog of foster care investigations said that overdue cases at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services had increased eightfold since 2011. In fact, investigations open longer than 30 days increased about 125%, from 2,700 to 6,100. —

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Agency officials blame the problem on chronic staffing shortages and warn that the backlog is likely to persist for at least another year.

"We didn't get into this overnight, and we are not going to solve it overnight," said Pam Dickfoss, who was appointed deputy director of social services earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The majority of the lagging investigations — which include allegations of serious abuse, inadequate food, homes in disrepair or other licensing violations — have remained open for more than six months, according to data obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act.

The delays can make investigations more difficult, officials said. Witnesses become unavailable or memories fade. And children could remain in potentially substandard homes as inquiries back up.

In one case, investigators took four months to confirm that a child's hands had been placed under scalding water by other children, resulting in second-degree burns, records show. It also took four months to determine that another child was not being fed regularly and that his surroundings were filthy and stank of mildew.

The backlog has grown steadily since Brown took office in 2011, when the department probed 3,491 complaints and finished 60% on time. This year, complaints against state-licensed foster homes requiring investigations are on pace to exceed 4,000, and only 40% of those inquiries are being completed on time, records show.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento agree the problem is urgent, but say it has received little attention in discussions of possible new funding for social services as the state's financial health has improved.

"It is just horrific when we fail children by not making sure the homes are appropriate and meet certain standards," State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said. "It just can't get more black and white... These are devastating numbers."

State Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) called the investigation bottleneck "appalling."

"I am certain that there is a unanimous, nonpartisan belief in the Legislature that we need to help these children and that we need to ensure that they need to get the best environment that we can provide," he said.

The epicenter for the backlog is Southern California, where some investigators are responsible for more than 80 open cases, on top of extensive administrative work.

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Mitchell said it would be months before Sacramento lawmakers could begin formally considering increased funding to ease the problem. And she said it is an open question whether Brown would support paying for more investigators.

"The administration has made it abundantly clear that a rainy day fund, paying down debt and controlling spending is the priority," Mitchell said. "There is a real uphill battle fighting for a situation like this."

Dickfoss said most of the backlog involves lower-level complaints such as insufficient food and homes in disrepair. But she acknowledged that some are "high priority" cases that could represent a threat to the health and safety of children.

The data show that of 2,505 investigations conducted in the 12 months ending in July, only 993 were completed within the agency's three-month rule. Nearly 780 cases remained incomplete for at least five months.

Meanwhile, 2,077 complaints were investigated in the first six months of this year. If that pace continues, this year's total will sharply exceed the 3,033 cases probed in all of calendar 2013.

Foster care is regulated on two levels in California. State investigators focus on licensing violations at government-selected residential facilities where children are placed, as well as foster homes recruited and overseen by private, nonprofit agencies. County social workers respond to complaints of abuse and neglect.

The private foster family agencies, which care for 15,000 children statewide, have received hundreds of millions of dollars more than the government-operated system they began supplanting in the 1990s. The use of the nonprofits was intended to provide children with more intensive support services and supervision. The records reviewed by The Times show more than 60% of the backlogged state complaints involve nonprofit foster care providers, which operate under county contracts.

State officials have pledged to crack down on abuses in those homes, following a Times investigation last year. The paper found children in homes overseen by the private agencies were about a third more likely to be victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than those in government-supervised foster homes.

In Los Angeles County, social workers also have struggled to complete their abuse and neglect reviews on time. In 2010, the county's child welfare chief, Trish Ploehn, was ousted from her position following news reports that 40% of abuse and neglect investigations were behind schedule. To help ease that backlog, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration allowed the county to temporarily take 60 days instead of 30 to complete inquiries — a policy that continued under Brown until 2012.

The county assigned additional workers to complaint investigations and declared the problem largely solved in 2011.

But some of that progress now has been lost, officials say. More than 6,100 current county investigations have remained open for more than 30 days, a nearly eight-fold increase since 2011. Cases open more than 30 days have increased from from 2,700 to 6,100 in the same period. Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning said he has deployed a strike team of top managers to develop a new plan to reduce the backlog.

Dickfoss, the state official, said 71 additional child welfare positions have recently been approved to support investigations at her agency. But the new workers will be assigned to quality assurance and training duties, not field investigations of complaints, she said.

"Training and quality assurance have really been decimated. Workers tell me they haven't received training in years," Dickfoss said. "We haven't done the data mining needed to make sure cases are being properly triaged and thoroughly investigated."

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