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Child-Abuse Calls Dismissed, Official Reveals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An embarrassed child-welfare chief said Monday she has learned of at least three cases in which her staff told callers their allegations of child abuse could not be investigated because a hiring freeze had stretched staff too thin.

Human Services Agency Director Barbara Fitzgerald said she has never sanctioned--and intends to immediately end--the use of such an approach as a strategy to pressure the Board of Supervisors to lift a hiring freeze on county employees.

She said she is conducting an internal review and will draw up plans this week to reshuffle department staff to ensure that all child-abuse cases are fully investigated and managed despite the hiring freeze.

“It is not this agency’s intent, ever, to put any child at risk,” Fitzgerald said. “I understand that a number of people have been told this agency will not respond because of the hiring freeze. That’s simply not true. We are responding--and will continue to respond--to those situations in which children are at risk.”

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County Chief Administrator Harry Hufford, who last week criticized Fitzgerald’s management style, said Monday that he was encouraged by her prompt response.

“I’m pleased she’s taking charge as I asked her to do,” he said.

But Supervisor Frank Schillo remained critical of Fitzgerald’s management. “I’m going to have to see some action before I believe it,” he said. “I’d like to see disciplinary action of the people [involved] and see her reorganize her department.”

Barry Hammitt, head of the union representing Fitzgerald’s child protective services workers, said Monday that the union does not condone the method in which the calls were allegedly handled. He declined to comment further until Fitzgerald had completed her internal review.

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Fitzgerald said she only became aware March 17 that calls to her agency were being dismissed with complaints about inadequate staffing, after Hufford told The Times that he had been contacted by a woman concerned about the welfare of a child in her neighborhood.

The unidentified woman told Hufford that she called the agency about a child with a black eye. The woman said one of Fitzgerald’s staffers told her the hiring freeze made it impossible for the department to take on new cases.

Fitzgerald said she launched an internal investigation as soon as she learned of the phone call. As of Monday afternoon, Fitzgerald said she had confirmed that a call had been handled inappropriately and also learned of two similar additional cases.

At least one staffer has admitted to handling a telephone call inappropriately, she said, although she declined to release the employee’s name or say what disciplinary action would be taken.

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“We’re taking the appropriate actions,” she said. “It’s a personnel matter.”

Fitzgerald would not discuss the nature of the alleged abuse in the other two cases. She said two of the three cases involved “fairly serious” allegations that were investigated during the weekend. She did not say whether children have been removed from their homes in connection with any of the three cases.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald has sent a memo to her staff telling them “to please not say that anymore” regarding the effect of the hiring freeze on their workload. “It really misrepresents what the agency is doing.”

Hufford instituted a multi-department hiring freeze earlier this year to get the county’s troubled finances back on track. Days before Hufford received the call regarding the child with the black eye, Fitzgerald had appealed in vain to him to lift the freeze for her agency, saying she was understaffed.

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As of last week, Hufford was not convinced that Fitzgerald’s child protective services employees--whose number are expected to drop from 96 to 81 because of attrition during the freeze--were overworked.

Preliminary information she provided him actually suggested her caseworkers were carrying only about a third of the caseload they could reasonably handle under the department’s own standards. Salaries for child protective services workers range from about $28,000 to nearly $52,000 for veteran employees.

Fitzgerald said Monday that she plans to meet with Hufford later this week to present him with updated statistics and reorganization plans. “The No. 1 priority is to keep the children safe,” she said.


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