Thursday, February 15, 2018

Agreement Reached in Attorney General's HumCo Child Abuse Reporting Inquiry

Posted By on Thu, Feb 15, 2018 at 11:24 AM

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A Humboldt County Superior Court judge has accepted a stipulated judgement negotiated between the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, the Sheriff's Office and the California Attorney General stemming from the AG's civil investigation into whether the county was in compliance with the California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, the county announced this morning.

In 2016, the state subpoenaed copious records from the county, requesting documentation of every report of child abuse or neglect received between 2011 and 2015. According to today's press release, "the inquiry was launched in 2015 after concerns were raised by local tribes and other community partners regarding inefficiencies and barriers to service in the CWS Emergency Response function, primarily dealing with screening practices and cross-reporting between agencies." This would account for why the original subpoena request, as reported by the Journal in 2016, seemed to focus on DHHS's interactions with local law enforcement and mandated reporting policies, especially as related to foster kids and native youth. (You can read our 2016 story here.)

In 2017, the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury released two reports on the state of the Child Welfare System in Humboldt County, finding reports were not being filed or responded to in a timely manner and there were frustrations and miscommunications between DHHS, the Sheriff's Office and the Humboldt County Office of Education. The grand jury alleged "shockingly slow response times" by DHHS case workers to some reports and a high number of cases that the agency chose not to investigate at all. You can read that coverage here

In a press release, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra blasted the agencies in question for their “systemic noncompliance.”

“California’s child protection laws require agencies to take immediate action when they learn about potential abuse or neglect. The institutions of Humboldt County entrusted to protect children failed them,” said Becerra in the press release. “What can be more important than public agencies performing their duties to safeguard the security and welfare of our kids? We owe it to our children to enforce these laws vigorously. This stipulated judgment will keep the spotlight on Humboldt County's implementation of systemwide reforms to protect children from abuse and neglect.”

According to today's press release, the judgment includes an interagency agreement between the Sheriff's Office and CWS, as well as liaisons that will "ensure compliance" with state law, development of an interagency protocol to "ensure coordination of mental health and child welfare services," implementation of an emrgency response system by both agencies, a shift from a paper-based intake system to an electronic one, an internal tracking tool across agencies and engagement of a tribal consultant. (For the full list of  changes, see the press release included below.)

Among the biggest obstacles reported to the Journal has been the inability of CWS to retain staff. Burnout and turnover under onerous caseloads have been cited as one reason for the department's alleged dysfunction. To address this, the agency has agreed to execute a three-year agreement between CWS and the National Council for Crime and Delinquency "to support systems change" and also to develop and implement a recruitment and retention plan to raise staffing levels at CWS. The agency will also retain a compliance monitor to report back to the AG for the next three years.

The stipulated judgement marks the conclusion of the Attorney General's investigation into the issue.

From The Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services:

The Superior Court of Humboldt County has accepted a stipulated judgment cooperatively negotiated by the California Attorney General (AG), the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and the Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS). The stipulation, dated Feb. 14, marks the conclusion of an investigation by the AG into specific policies and practices related to DHHS’s Child Welfare Services Division (CWS).

The inquiry was launched in 2015 after concerns were raised by local tribes and other community partners regarding inefficiencies and barriers to service in the CWS Emergency Response function, primarily dealing with screening practices and cross-reporting between agencies.

The requirements set forth in the judgment reflect collaborative efforts on the part of the AG, the HCSO and DHHS to improve outcomes for children and families in the county’s child welfare system of care.

Details of the agreement include:

Creation of an interagency agreement between HCSO and CWS, and the designation of liaisons at each agency to ensure compliance with the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA);

Development of an interagency protocol to ensure coordination of mental health and child welfare services;

Implementation by both HCSO and CWS of prompt and efficient emergency response systems available 24 hours a day, seven days a week;

Movement by CWS from a paper-based intake system to an electronic system that will save time and reduce bottlenecks in the screening process;

Creation of policies and protocols to ensure timely cross-reporting with both the HCSO and the District Attorney’s Office;

Implementation of a thorough risk evaluation process for any child who is the subject of a referral;

Revision of CWS policies and procedures to deepen collaboration with tribes, including engaging a tribal consultant to assist with the implementation of policies and procedures that address assessments, investigation of referrals and the specific needs of tribal children;
Development of protocols for handling reports of abuse or neglect that fall outside the county’s geographic jurisdiction;

Creation of an internal tracking tool for reports and for cross reports between agencies;
Execution of a three-year agreement between CWS and the National Council for Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) to support systems change, including assistance with communication, policy revisions, usage of screening tools, workload assessments and specific plans to reduce the number of outstanding investigations;

Development and implementation of a recruitment and retention plan to raise staffing levels at CWS;

Design and implementation of training frameworks for existing and new-hire employees;
Creation of a formal complaint process;

Establishment of a taskforce of internal and external stakeholders to help create a mandated reporter guide, and provide input to both DHHS and HCSO regarding changes to policies and procedures;

Retention of a compliance monitor who will provide the AG with biannual reports for three years.

In papers filed with the court, the AG’s office stated that DHHS and HCSO worked cooperatively to reach this agreement and have “affirmed their commitment to make meaningful changes to how child abuse and neglect reports are handled in Humboldt County.”

DHHS Director Connie Beck said the settlement agreement formalizes efforts that have been under way for years to modernize various systems within CWS. “Staff inherited an inefficient paper-and-pencil system that they’ve had to work with for many years. I’m grateful for their commitment to systems improvement and, ultimately, to the children and families we serve.” Beck added that staff will continue their work to prioritize tribal values and input across all of the department’s systems of care.

“Protecting the children of this county is the highest priority for the Sheriff’s Office,” said Sheriff William Honsal. “I am thankful that through this process our communication and teamwork with CWS has grown strong. Our new communications system and joint response protocol will ensure that mandated reports of child abuse and neglect are quickly investigated and that children are protected.”

From the California Office of the Attorney General:

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra obtained a stipulated judgment against Humboldt County’s Department of Health and Human Services—Child Welfare Services (Department) and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office (Sheriff’s Office). The judgment was entered following an investigation by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) that uncovered systemic noncompliance by both agencies with California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act and the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code.

“California’s child protection laws require agencies to take immediate action when they learn about potential abuse or neglect. The institutions of Humboldt County entrusted to protect children failed them,” said Attorney General Becerra. “What can be more important than public agencies performing their duties to safeguard the security and welfare of our kids? We owe it to our children to enforce these laws vigorously. This stipulated judgment will keep the spotlight on Humboldt County's implementation of system-wide reforms to protect children from abuse and neglect.”

The Attorney General’s investigation found that the Humboldt County agencies put children’s well-being at risk by failing to coordinate their duties to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect. The stipulated judgment, entered in Humboldt County Superior Court, requires extensive corrective measures across multiple government agencies to ensure that every report of child abuse and neglect is investigated by one or both agencies in a timely manner.

As part of the settlement, the Department and the Sheriff’s Office also worked with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Children’s Justice to create a detailed compliance plan that includes:

Implementing a new emergency response system with wholesale revision of policies, procedures, and practices;
Developing and implementing a joint electronic tracking system;
Entering into a memorandum of understanding detailing cross-reporting and coordination procedures;
Retaining two independent experts, including a tribal consultant to ensure collaboration with tribes, to oversee agreed-upon reforms;
Providing extensive training for staff;
Establishing complaint systems to address community concerns; and
Creating a community advisory committee.
The mission of the DOJ’s Bureau of Children’s Justice is to protect the rights of children, especially in instances involving the interplay of multiple agencies or disciplines, and to focus the attention and resources of law enforcement and policymakers on the importance of safeguarding the children of California.

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About The Author

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry

Bio:
Linda Stansberry was a staff writer of the North Coast Journal from 2015 to 2018.

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