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Persistent backlog in L.A. County child abuse probes has led to a crisis, report says

A persistent backlog of child abuse investigations in Los Angeles County has led to a “crisis,” with four in 10 open inquiries stretching beyond the state’s two-month deadline, according to the county chief executive’s office.

In a further indication of the problems faced by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, Chief Executive William T Fujioka said in a report released this week that shifting workers to combat the delays “appears to be slowly creating a back-end crisis,” depleting resources for other critical tasks. Among the duties handled by back-end workers in the department are foster care placements and home visits.

The assessment by the county chief executive’s office is the most detailed analysis to date by county officials of the backlog of cases—which involve more than 10,000 children according to recent figures—in the troubled department. The findings contradict department Director Trish Ploehn’s statement earlier this year that the longer inquiries have resulted in higher quality child abuse investigations. The report, distributed to county supervisors last month, was not released until The Times appealed to County Counsel Andrea Ordin.

“The county’s high [child abuse investigations] backlog appears to be contributing to poor outcomes in the [child abuse investigations] unit,” the chief executive’s report said.

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The 21-page report is intended to “set the stage” for an independent audit of the department that was ordered in August by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, one of a number of pending requests by the board to better assess problems in the department.

Elizabeth Brennan, spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents the county’s social workers, said in a recent interview that the sizable backlog in open cases was fueled in large part by what she called an “out-of-control policy machine.” Among the department’s 370 procedural guides, she said, 140 have been created or revised in the last year. The main procedural guide for child abuse investigations has been changed 39 times.

The union was one of the first entities to raise the alarm about the backlog in a March letter to Ploehn. At that time, cases involving more than 15,000 children had not been fully investigated within the 30-day deadline then in effect.

Since then, state officials, citing the county’s efforts to improve standards by interviewing more witnesses, better reviewing the family’s history with other county departments and requiring more managerial review, granted Los Angeles County a waiver of the 30-day deadline. Even with double the time allowed elsewhere in the state, the department has struggled to complete inquiries within 60 days, although the report calls current figures a “significant reduction” from a peak this summer.

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Since 2007, children found by the department to be victims of abuse who were left in their homes have increasingly experienced abuse again within a year, according to a researcher hired by the state. The increase was 19%.

Additionally, more than 67 children have died of abuse or neglect since the beginning of 2008 after being referred to the department, according to county statistics. The rate of such deaths has increased over that period, and county officials have acknowledged that many involved case management errors.

Throughout the county, the 7,300-person department handles 170,000 child abuse hotline calls a year.

Michelle Dominguez, of Lakewood, said she was frustrated by the department’s response when she called on behalf of her daughter’s 12-year-old friend. Dominguez said she was stunned by the squalor she found in the girl’s home when she dropped the girl off in September.

“I was in tears and ran out of there. I felt something walking up my legs. I was covered in roaches from my knees down,” Dominguez said, recounting conditions also described by the girl’s father, who lives elsewhere.

The girl’s mother, Dominguez said, was a hoarder. The home was covered with trash, dog feces and pests. The kitchen had little food, and the girl and her three siblings appeared malnourished, she said.

When she called to report the case to the Department of Children and Family Services, Dominguez said, she learned that alleged abuse and neglect had already been reported by police on Sept. 8.

Two months later, Dominguez said the investigation remains open. Although her daughter’s friend and another sibling have since gone to live with their father — a decision unrelated to department action — two other children remain in the home, Dominguez said.

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Department officials did not respond to questions about the case and are barred by confidentiality laws from commenting on it. Ploehn also declined The Times’ requests for an interview regarding the backlog.

Earlier this year, however, Ploehn said she needed additional personnel to resolve the backlog. More recently, her staff emphasized that although cases remain unresolved, social workers make first contact with the child’s family within days of the hotline call and are required to pull the child out of situations as soon as they verify substantial danger.

But county officials also acknowledge that critical assessments following initial contact with the child might take weeks longer.

Evidence of abuse or neglect might diminish by the time social workers look for it. In Dominguez’s case, she said she provided food and housing for her daughter’s friend, and the girl gained more than a dozen pounds by the time social workers assessed her health.

Brennan, the SEIU spokeswoman, said the standards for investigation are applied unevenly in the department’s 18 offices, and social workers on temporary assignment have little training in this type of work as they move from one office to the next in efforts to ease the backlog. The county chief executive’s report found that the offices with the largest backlogs generally have the most inexperienced workers.

Fujioka, who oversees Ploehn, referred questions about the backlog to a deputy, Antonia Jiménez.

Jiménez said she was trying to develop a “sustainable” staffing plan that would address the issue. She also said some of the investigation standards imposed over the past year — such as more interviews of key witnesses and managerial review — might be “streamlined.”

“Do you need all these safety enhancements for 100% of the cases or is there a way to triage them?” she asked.

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The report, which Jiménez spearheaded, found some department policies “duplicative or contradictory,” making it difficult for social workers to comply. The report also cited problems with newly implemented e-mail alerts designed to signal social workers when they missed deadlines for visiting children and writing reports.

“The problem is that the social workers are receiving so many alerts that people start to ignore them,” she said.

Middle managers spend too much time out of the office at community meetings, the report found. When they are in the office, much of their remaining energy is dedicated to dealing with problem employees requiring discipline, the report said.

The report did not directly assess the effectiveness of the department’s senior management team.

Meanwhile, many of the actions ordered in recent months by the Board of Supervisors, which has ultimate responsibility for setting policy for the department, have been placed on hold.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a persistent department critic, said the board has ordered seven studies of the department since August, “most of which have not been acted on.”

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, a board member since 1980 who pushed for many of the studies, said: “You need a little historical reference point … so you’re going in the right direction and not repeating the failures of the past.”

Antonovich said in a recent interview that he is waiting until an outside auditor reviews the department’s management before deciding whether to continue his support of Ploehn.

The audit was ordered in August as an emergency measure, but so far, no one has been hired to do it.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com


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