San Diego County's beleaguered system of responding to allegations of child abuse not only needs reconstruction from within but help from outside, according to a county report released Friday and to be considered Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
An independent, outside "Family Advocate" should be established to receive and review complaints about the system, social workers should be given better training, and children who are removed from their homes while child abuse allegations are investigated should, whenever possible, be placed with other relatives rather than in foster homes, Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey recommended.
Moreover, virtually everyone involved in the county's Child Abuse Response System needs to be more sensitive to the family unit and not so quick to tear it apart while abuse charges are investigated, Hickey said.
Improved training for both social workers and foster parents should be provided under contract with San Diego State University and the San Diego Community College District, and the Child Welfare League of America should be contracted to develop a "detailed corrective action plan" to improve the county's Department of Social Services, Hickey recommended.
His report comes on the heels of a scathing reprimand of the Child Abuse Response System by the county grand jury last month, followed two weeks later by another stinging critique of the system by the county's Juvenile Justice Commission.
Both the grand jury and the volunteer committee asserted that social workers are too quick to wrest a child from home while abuse allegations are investigated, and that the county suffers from an institutional bias against parents accused of abuse.
Addressing that, Hickey said in the report: "Investigations by social workers must be balanced, presenting all information including the strengths of the family as well as risk factors. Time must be invested to pursue information which might result in decisions favorable to the child remaining in the home."
When they're called upon, foster parents and relatives must share in the ultimate goal of reunifying child and parent. "A desire to take care of the child on a permanent basis must not be permitted to work against the parent's goal" of reunification, Hickey wrote.
The discussion of the count system is expected to dominate debate at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, as the board reviews not only Hickey's report but the previous two.
The board ordered Hickey in November to evaluate the system as criticism of it mounted from all sides, and the reviews have concurred that much of the blame rests with the social workers themselves.
At the outset, the staff should be better trained in receiving and investigating abuse reports through better screening and interviewing, Hickey said.
If the allegation is investigated, "children should only be removed from their homes when there is imminent danger which cannot be reduced or eliminated by other less intrusive interventions," his report says.
Once the abuse case is within the investigative pipeline, Hickey said, social workers must show balance toward both child and parent and "pursue all evidence both positive and negative," and report "on the strengths of the family."
If the child is removed from the home, the parents must be given a handbook detailing their rights and including telephone numbers for the social worker, his supervisor, a "complaint specialist" and the independent family advocate, as well as information on how to obtain an attorney.
Echoing criticism voiced in the grand jury report, Hickey acknowledged that "the social worker is often viewed as all-powerful. The therapists, attorneys and judges are often viewed as unduly influenced by the social worker." County decisions about the child's case may not be supported by the hard facts, yet "once the case starts down a track, it sometimes becomes impossible to turn the train."
The system is also too demanding of the parents, distracting them from more important issues, Hickey said.
"Too many tasks or unproductive requirements overwhelm parents and reduce the potential for priority behavioral change," he said.
To that point, Hickey recommended that psychological evaluators and therapists' involvement "is pragmatic and focused on key behavioral change . . . directly related to the abuse."
He said parents must help develop their own rehabilitation plans, versus the use of bureaucratic, impersonal checklists, and if, for example, "parents need transportation to attend parenting classes, transportation resources should be" taken into consideration.
Hickey also recommended that the juvenile court system and the attorneys within it be better prepared and more sensitive to the individual cases and more efficiently use their time, partly through better scheduling of cases, to give cases the attention they need.