Wednesday, March 30, 2016

State Conducting Sweeping Investigation of DHHS's Handling of Child Abuse Reports

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 4:56 PM

click to enlarge Kamala Harris
  • Kamala Harris
The California Attorney General’s Office has launched an investigation into the the Humboldt Department of Health and Human Services’ handling of reports of child abuse and neglect, and specifically whether it is in compliance with the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.

The origins and goals of the investigation are unclear, but a court document filed by the AG's Office describes it as a civil investigation relating to Humboldt County agencies' compliance with California's Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act. The state seems to be casting a broad net as last month it subpoenaed a host of records from the county, including the paper trail documenting every report of child abuse or neglect received by the county from 2011 through 2015 and how it was handled. Additionally, the AG’s Office subpoena requests seem especially focused on the department’s correspondences and agreements with local law enforcement, mandated reporting policies and its handling handling of abuse and neglect reports relating to foster kids and native youth.

It’s not immediately clear if the investigation is in response to complaints, is based on suspected malfeasance or is a compliance check, though it's worth noting that the investigative subpoena lists DHHS as a "witness." A spokesperson for DHHS declined to discuss the investigation but released the following statement on behalf of the department and county counsel:

“Unfortunately, details of the investigations of child welfare services and the records of the California Attorney General are strictly confidential so the department simply cannot comment on specifics at this time. Nevertheless, we can affirm our commitment to the welfare of children in Humboldt County as well as our determination to work collaboratively with tribes to ensure that all allegations of abuse and neglect are promptly investigated and that families receive culturally appropriate services.” 

A representative of the AG’s Office, who declined to be named talking about the sensitive investigation, said it was one of several probes launched by Attorney General Kamala Harris’ new Children’s Bureau of Justice, which launched last year.

“It’s a new unit, formed with the purpose of enforcing children’s rights and with a particular focus on foster care, education and juvenile justice,” the representative said. “[Harris] really wanted to focus on accountability and enforcement gaps in systems that are child serving.”

While the newly minted bureau has launched a number of investigations, the representative said Humboldt’s is the first to go public. That’s because Humboldt County has so far refused to turn over the sought records, and county counsel is challenging the Feb. 25 subpoena.

On March 17, the county filed a petition for relief in Humboldt County Superior Court asking it to quash the subpoena, arguing it shouldn’t be forced to comply because the AG’s Office wasn’t making a specific allegation of wrongdoing; because the records requested are confidential juvenile records; and because it’s the California Department of Social Services, not the AG’s Office, that has the broad authority to review records in order to oversee the functions of county child welfare agencies. The county’s petition, filed in open court, is a public record, which brought the investigation into public view, with the original subpoena, attached to the county’s filing, offering all the details of what was requested.

The AG’s Office, in its filing, said that the Humboldt County Superior Court simply doesn’t have a say in the case as it lacks jurisdiction over whether to compel a witness (the county of Humboldt) to comply with a subpoena or to consider the county’s challenge to the AG’s constitutional powers and authorities to conduct investigations. In a hearing Friday, the local court agreed with the state that it doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case, so the subpoena remains in effect. If the county continues to refuse to comply, the AG’s office can initiate a proceeding to compel compliance in a superior court of general jurisdiction.

While she declined to discuss what spurred the subpoena, the AG’s Office representative said the investigation “is sort of stemming” from a letter the bureau sent out to all California counties last year outlining their responsibilities to foster youth. She specifically pointed to the following paragraph of that letter, which describes mandated reporting requirements and notes that social workers, licensing workers and local child support agency caseworkers are classified as mandated reporters:

“If a mandated reporter, in his or her professional capacity or within the scope of his or her employment, knows or reasonably suspects a foster youth has been the victim of child abuse or neglect, he or she must call a designated agency immediately or as soon as is practicably possible, and submit a written follow up report within 36 hours of receiving the information concerning the incident,” the letter states, with a “designated agency” meaning a sheriff’s department, police department or the county welfare department.

The representative said the bureau conducts investigations based on complaints and tips, its own data analysis and sometimes simply to “confirm compliance with the law.” According to, Humboldt County has higher rates of both substantiated abuse/neglect cases and children living in foster care than the state average. According to the site, 1.2 percent of Humboldt's children age 0-17 live in foster care, nearly double the state average of .68 percent. Humboldt County also averages 10.1 substantiated abuse and neglect cases per 1,000 children compared to the state average of 8.7.

In its subpoena, the AG’s office is requesting a host of documents, including those listed below. To review the court filings in their entirety, click on the PDFs at the bottom of this post. (The subpoena itself begins on Page 8 of the county's petition.)

* All printed forms, standard instruments, templates or tools relating to the DHHS’ Emergency Response Protocol

* All reports received by DHHS of child abuse or neglect

* The number of in-person investigations conducted, including investigations of reports involving foster kids

* The number of reports “evaluated out”

* A copy of all written policies and procedures, whether formal or informal, relating to compliance with the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act

* A copy of all written policies and procedures, whether formal or informal, relating to the evaluation, licensing and re-licensing of foster homes

* A copy of all written policies and procedures, whether formal or informal, relating to the supervising, monitoring and evaluation of unlicensed foster care settings, including but not limited to kinship care, NREFM or tribally approved foster homes

* Departmental organization charts listing job titles and names

* Budget documents that include funding sources

* Documents sufficient to identify the chain of command and the flow and scope of responsibilities, job duties and accountability between and among Department of Health and Human Services and Children and Family Services

* Documents identifying average caseloads for those employed by Child Welfare Services

* All agreements with the sheriff’s office, law enforcement agencies and local tribes to relating to reports of child abuse or neglect, including those related to cross reporting, coordinating and investigating such reports

* All internal communications relating to tribes and children who are eligible for enrollment or enrolled in a local tribe

* All communications to and from DHHS relating to reports of child abuse and neglect

* All communications to and from DHHS relating to foster placements

* A report generated by DHHS detailing each and every report of child abuse and neglect received, including the identity of the child, who reported it, the tribal and foster care status of the child, dates of actions take by DHHS, interactions with law enforcement agencies and any final determinations made

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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