The Los Angeles County child welfare agency is so slow at investigating allegations of abuse that some children remain in unsafe homes for months without action taken to protect them, according a damning report by the state auditor
Even when they do conduct investigations, staff at the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) are failing to properly assess safety risks, and are placing children with relatives without conducting mandated home inspections and background checks, the auditor stated in the report released May 21.
“(T)he department has unnecessarily risked the health and safety of children in its care because it has not consistently completed investigations and required safety and risk assessments on time or accurately,” the report states. “As a result, the department has left children in unsafe and abusive situations for months longer than necessary.”
The department is supposed to begin investigating reports of child abuse and neglect within 24 hours if the allegations are severe, or within 10 days for less severe cases. But after reviewing 30 cases in depth, the auditor found more than a third of investigations did not begin on time. In one case, social workers tried contacting a family accused of abuse only once within 24 hours, and then didn’t try again until five months later, after which the child had to be removed from the home, according to the report.
Additionally, risk and safety assessments were frequently completed late – one took more than three months instead of the required two days – and even then didn’t always identify threats accurately, the auditor said. Staff also failed to check up on children regularly, and to assess whether caregivers they were placed with were capable of taking care of them.
LA County Department of Children and Family Services is the largest child welfare agency is the country. In fiscal year 2017 to 2018, it handled more than 167,000 reports of child abuse and neglect.
Funding for the department has increased 22 percent over the past four years, from $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013 to 2014, to $2.3 billion in fiscal year 2017 to 2018, allowing it to hire 2,600 more social workers. At the same time, the caseloads have declined as the number of children receiving services has gone down, the report said.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), one of three legislators who requested the audit last year, called the findings “a very serious disappointment.” The request for the audit was spurred in part by the deaths of two boys in his district, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos and 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who died in their parents’ care despite multiple reports to the DCFS about ongoing abuse.
“It’s tragic that people have to lose their lives before we realize the severity of this breakdown, and there are multiple breakdowns that are putting children in a very vulnerable position,” Lackey said. “It’s just completely unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, Lackey said he was optimistic that the department would begin to make changes, and that legislators would be acting on the information.
“It seems like, with much of the identified problems, there’s a pathway to bring remedy,” Lackey said. “Unfortunately a lot of this is systematic, and it’s more widespread than I imagined it would be, but once we shine light on it we can actually start to fix it.”
The auditor recommended the department implement a tracking process to ensure investigations, safety assessments, home inspections and background checks are conducted on time. It also said the DCFS should train staff and supervisors annually on how to identify safety threats and risks, and enforce time frames required to complete and sign off on investigations. The department needs to make sure system changes recommended following the death of a child are implemented, the report said.
In a statement, the department said it “is committed to addressing the thoughtful recommendations included in the final report,” and said it had already begun to address some of the findings. However, it said investigations and assessments sometimes take longer than expected because of complications outside of the department’s control, such as the time it takes to obtain medical records and locate families that try to avoid social workers.
“If an investigation finds a child is at risk of harm, we will move quickly to place the child in a safe environment with a relative or resource family in the community,” the department stated. “We try to place the child or children as quickly as possible to reduce further trauma and to avoid instability during a time of crisis in their young lives.”