"Overzealous, judgmental and punitive" county social workers take children in San Diego County from their families too easily and reunite them grudgingly, a court-appointed volunteer committee said in a report released Thursday.
Buttressing assertions made two weeks ago by the county grand jury that the system of protecting abused children is in serious disrepair, the county's Juvenile Justice Commission echoed many of the same concerns in reviewing a dozen particularly "troublesome" cases.
In its four-month inquiry, a subcommittee of the full 15-member commission found that social workers violated state law by giving legal advice, documented findings poorly, reacted defensively when criticized and made halfhearted attempts to reunite the families.
The commission called the county Department of Social Services' failure to "comply with good-faith reunification efforts . . . a disturbingly recurrent theme."
In perhaps their most telling indictment of the system, commissioners categorized the juvenile dependency system as "neither blind nor evenhanded."
"People who are outside certain nebulous mainstream boundaries are more easily suspected and more cavalierly treated," the subcommittee found, adding that "such people are less likely to be believed and listened to; that they are more easily 'written off' and discounted by those in a position to affect their lives and families."
Although it conceded that choosing 12 cases out of 84,000 investigated last year is far from representative, the committee noted that "the similarity of problems raised serious concerns."
In one case the committee pulled from Family Court files, a social worker threatened to remove a child from her mother's home if the youngster was permitted to attend a birthday party her father was hosting. The worker advised the mother, who was separated from the father, to move to another part of the county and to keep her location secret.
The social worker's "non-responsiveness and antagonism" toward the father's attorney slowed the father-daughter reunion, contributing to an "emotionally charged" atmosphere, the committee found.
In another case, a social worker pulled a boy from his home even though there was no evidence the child was abused or neglected. A sibling of the boy had accused the parents of using drugs and acting violently toward each other. The worker, whose attitude was "judgmental and punitive," kept the child in a foster home despite the child's requests to go home--and even though the parents' problems had not resulted in abuse or neglect, the committee said.
Even after the child's father was diagnosed as having terminal lung cancer, the child was not returned home, despite a therapist's recommendation that it would have done the child good. The therapist later said the child now feels responsible for his father's death.
Although state law mandates that relatives be given preference when the county is deciding where to place children, social workers sometimes overlook that option, according to the committee.
Highlighting such an instance is a "particularly troubling case" in which an infant was placed in a foster home even though a maternal aunt, herself a licensed foster mother, expressed interest in the baby, the committee said.
"It appears that the social worker had a predetermined plan for the minor which did not include the aunt," the report says. "As a result, the case became protracted and painful for all involved."
Although the child was ultimately moved from her foster parents' home and placed in her aunt's custody, she spent her first 14 months with the foster family, and "it remains to be seen whether she will have long-term emotional consequences," the committee wrote.
Each side spent more than $10,000 in legal costs as it sought to adopt the baby. Disillusioned, both the foster parents and the aunt have since dropped out of the foster-parent program.
"Thus, the bad judgment of the worker and her supervisor have caused direct human pain plus the loss of two well-qualified foster homes," the committee said.
While the committee noted the presence of many dedicated and highly skilled social workers working in a system unequipped to handle thousands of complex cases each year, the overall effect of the situation has led to the "tendency to become numb to the impact these cases have on children and their families."
So unwilling are members of the Children's Services Bureau to hear opposing views that they approach "the point of being hostile and threatening," forcing families to seek counseling and guidance from other organizations, the committee found.
Among its 21 recommendations, the committee has asked that social workers refrain from giving legal advice or risk discipline and that they keep orderly files, acknowledge mistakes, communicate better with therapists on cases and undergo review and better training.
Calls to the director and deputy director of the Children's Services Bureau were not returned Thursday.
The county's chief administrative officer directed the study at the request of County Supervisors George Bailey and Susan Golding. The commission was formed by state statute, and members were selected by Napoleon Jones, presiding judge of the Juvenile Court.