Two hungry children were wandering the streets of South Los Angeles alone last week when they walked into a liquor store, searching for a loaf of bread.
At one point, they nearly headed across busy Manchester Boulevard until a passerby intervened.
The children's ages: 2 and 3. Both wore soiled diapers when authorities picked them up.
This week, officials acknowledged that the children and their mother had been under the direct supervision of Los Angeles County's child protective services agency. The family was enrolled in a program designed to help the mother keep her children while learning to be a better parent. A social worker had repeatedly cleared her as safe during monthly visits, and counselors hired by the county were meant to aid with the monitoring, according to sources familiar with the case.
"Something didn't work here," said Philip Browning, director of the embattled child welfare department.
He referred the case to internal affairs investigators, but said the early findings have raised concerns about the safety of some children in a county program known internally as Family Maintenance.
The Department of Children and Family Services had allowed the mother, 32-year-old Sidnicka Wilson, to enter the program for relatively low-risk families even though she had lost six older children to the foster care system. She had a record of stealing and prostitution, court documents show. When she was arrested, police say she had cocaine in her possession.
Family Maintenance is meant to serve as a six-month intervention strategy for children at relatively low risk of abuse. It allows them to remain with their parents while their families are offered counseling, emergency shelter care, parent training, substance abuse testing and transportation.
"The Family Maintenance cases are the ones that are most concerning to me," Browning said. "We have more families in this program than I would really like."
The program is seen as an easier and cheaper alternative to foster care, which is perennially short of parents and funding.
It now has more than 13,000 children. A decade ago, there were about 8,000.
Wilson and her boys were in the program for months but exactly how long was unclear.
Caseworkers are supposed to offer a family only two three-month extensions beyond the first six months, and only if they can show that the parents are complying with the department's demands and demonstrating that safety risks will be removed. Further extensions are meant to be rare, and they require approval by high-level officials in the department.
Nevertheless,1,600 of the children now in the program have remained there for more than 12 months.
After months of receiving services, police found last week that Wilson's home was filthy with nothing but rotten food in the refrigerator. Officers said the boys looked malnourished and dirty.
Wilson was arrested on two felony counts of child abuse, one count of drug possession and misdemeanor charges that include giving false information to an officer. She is being held in county jail and her two boys were placed in foster care.
After Wilson's arrest, police learned that her 3-year-old son had wandered into the liquor store looking for food at least twice before.
Wilson's six oldest children were fathered by five men and were all removed by county caseworkers previously, according to sources familiar with the case but who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One of those children is in foster care, another is with a legal guardian and four received adoptive families after Wilson's parental rights were terminated, the sources added.
The 3-year-old had been placed in foster care in 2011 after caseworkers substantiated that he was suffering from general neglect and that Wilson and the boy's father were incapacitated or absent, the sources said. He was returned to the family in 2013 under a court order after caseworkers recommended reunification.
The youngest boy was also removed by caseworkers after he was born and was placed in foster care. But he was also returned last year.
Wilson herself was involved with the county's foster care system as a child, the sources said.
She should have been flagged before the abuse of her first child started, said Marilyn Flynn, dean of USC's School of Social Work.
"All our data tells us, this is the exactly the type of person where there is a high probability that she will abuse or neglect her child," Flynn said. "Ideally, we would have identified this mother when she was in the hospital and we would have offered her support and training with her first child."
The problems monitoring the family's progress was compounded, Browning said, by the department's inadequate computer tool for assessing a child's risk of being abused. Known as Structured Decision Making, the software asks a series of questions and produces a recommendation on how to proceed in the case
But the development of a replacement for that tool is months or years away, and the field office responsible for the boys' neighborhood in South Los Angeles continues to labor with some of the county's most difficult cases, highest caseloads and least experienced workers.
"The agency and the county as a whole clearly need better tools to manage what are often very difficult and complex caseloads," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area, said in a prepared statement.
The county's Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, formed last year in the aftermath of a series of child fatalities, will issue recommendations next month.
Times researcher Kent Coloma contributed to this report.