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Causes and Conditions 

Grand Jury investigates child welfare system

Humboldt County's children are not being afforded the protection they deserve. This is the conclusion of the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury, which recently released two reports about our child welfare system. One, about response times for "at risk" children, includes a triangle of finger-pointing between the three entities most responsible for responding to signs of neglect and abuse.

The report, which comes at the end of a nine-month investigation conducted by the grand jury, is based on multiple interviews within the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, school districts and Child Welfare Services. Interviewees discussed frustrations with the mandated reporter process. Mandated reporters are adults — like clergy, bus drivers, teachers and others — who are required by law to report signs of abuse in the children with whom they work. The scope of the problem in Humboldt County is potentially huge, as data from the Lucille Packard Foundation shows that we have one of the highest rates of abuse and neglect reports in the state (85 out of every 1,000 children, compared to the state average of 55).

According to grand jury foreperson Jim Glover, the decision to investigate the county's child welfare system originated from a couple of different complaints, one from the parent of a child in a rural school and another from a school superintendent. Grand jury members visited school districts across Humboldt County and spoke to personnel who had made mandated reports. The report describes the personnel as "vociferous in their complaints" about child welfare services, saying many cases were dismissed, CWS failed to reply or follow up, and case workers took so long to respond to reports (even after calling about a particular family or child as many as six to 21 times) that situations "deteriorated" significantly in the meantime. School personnel also allege they were told that CWS workers "don't go that far South" or that they should call the Sheriff's Office instead.

At least one district said it had not kept a repository of mandated reports on students, meaning staff weren't always aware that a particular child or family had ongoing issues. Another said it had been lax on following through with written reports about allegations, which the law requires to be filed within 36 hours of the time an allegation is made.

Through spokesperson Heather Muller, the county Department of Health and Human Services declined to respond to the grand jury, saying it is still reviewing the reports but will issue an official response "well within the established timeframe."

"Nothing our community does is more important than keeping children safe and we will continue to work with our families and partners to improve child welfare," Muller said in a brief statement emailed to the Journal.

Humboldt County Office of Education Superintendent Chris Hartley released a statement saying he appreciated the thoroughness of the investigation and looks forward to "further developing partnerships" with DHHS and law enforcement.

"There is tremendous opportunity to continue to foster deeper interagency collaboration," he said. "When we partner, we are stronger and our students and families directly benefit."

For their part, deputies with the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office described insufficient training of new deputies and supervisors, according to the report, which alleges some deputies did not file reports after making investigations and, in some cases, broke the anonymity of mandated reporters. Officers also had complaints about CWS, saying there were delays in receiving reports and CWS often sent a week's worth on Friday afternoon, meaning that, in some cases, the HCSO wouldn't be able to investigate until Monday. Stunningly, cases possibly involving physical or sexual abuse, meant to be reported within hours, sometimes did not get called in to the sheriff for days or weeks. Like the school personnel interviewed by the grand jury, law enforcement reported inadequate follow-up from case workers and problems with getting calls answered. Attempts to improve this relationship have failed, the grand jury said.

"While the grand jury supports apparent current efforts to create a task force to improve transparency and communication, the history of such past efforts gives us reason to be skeptical at this time," the report states.

Sheriff William Honsal pushes back on some of these findings, particularly in regard to training. Honsal says his office has negotiated a new memorandum of understanding with CWS that should close the "communication loop." The Friday afternoon dumping of multiple cases will no longer happen, he says, adding that the sheriff's office has also assigned a new detective to child abuse cases, and its ranks will swell by nine new recruits in the coming months. Honsal says the challenges of recruiting and housing deputies in rural communities has contributed to staffing concerns in time-sensitive cases, such as those involving child abuse. But he denies that a lack of training is a factor.

"We teach our people, when they respond to a child abuse case, we don't want to further traumatize the child," he says, explaining that the methodology of the Child Abuse Services Team involves an officer watching a social worker interview the child and taking a single report, rather than doing multiple interviews and potentially re-traumatizing a child. "What needs to be relayed is that we do take this very, very seriously at the sheriff's office."

The CAST interview system does highlight a potential bottleneck in processing reports, as the grand jury report refers to a general dearth of social workers in the field.

"CWS admitted they are badly in need of additional staff to handle their work," the report reads. "Best estimates of unfilled social worker vacancies ranged from 10 to 22."

Exacerbating an overall deficit of workers, according to the report, is a recent shift in policy in which skilled social workers have been pulled from the field in order to staff the phones for hotline intakes. This is one of the changes in policies and procedures that appears to have taken place mid-investigation. The grand jury reports that CWS "abruptly made notable changes to their policies and procedures at intake" after twice denying the grand jury access to intake process data.

In a report titled "Getting the Door Open," the grand jury details its attempts to track response times by CWS, saying it had been denied name-redacted copies of intake forms and has reported this denial to the presiding judge. Despite the denial, the jury was able to review 50 reports sent by mandated reporters. It found "shockingly slow response times," with only six receiving attention within 24 hours (the mandated amount of time). The average time for CWS to respond to a mandated reporter, according to the grand jury's data, was 12 days. It also found that, over a one-year period, CWS "evaluated out" more than half of reported abuse and neglect incidents, meaning they were disregarded, many without personal contact with reporters or alleged victims.

The report states that the social workers interviewed in the course of the investigation "appeared to be seriously dedicated to the work they were doing" but were hamstrung with internal frustrations, such as not receiving proper training, a high turnover rate, management issues and overwhelming caseloads, according to interviews conducted with CWS personnel.

If there are problems with CWS, Native American children appear to be suffering most in the system, representing approximately 38 percent of those in foster care despite comprising only 7 percent of all children in Humboldt County. The California Attorney General's Office has also focused on examining this dynamic, attempting to make sure the county is adhering to the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. The grand jury found a "disproportionate number of American Indian children removed from their homes." The remote location of many tribal members may contribute to delayed response times by a small CWS staff already spread thin.

The grand jury studied outcomes for one full year of reports, finding that a full 62 percent of calls were deemed not to meet requirements for an investigation, 32 percent were referred out to other agencies, such as family or marriage counseling (without follow up to see if these referrals were heeded), and only 6 percent of all reports received in the year resulted in opening a case for investigation. CWS, the report adds, appears to be "going through many rapid changes," one of which may include a task force to improve transparency and communication with law enforcement and school districts.

The Department of Health and Human Services, Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and Humboldt County Office of Education are expected to release official responses to the report later this month.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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About The Author

Linda Stansberry

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Linda Stansberry is a staff writer of the North Coast Journal.

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