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L.A. County's child welfare agency wastes $514,000 on cellphones, audit finds

More than 1,400 of the department's 5,000 phones were not used by employees, yet were activated and incurred $330,000 in service charges. One worker racked up $2,000 in personal international calls.

December 22, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

A quarter of the money spent last year on cellphones by Los Angeles County's child welfare department was wasted on "unnecessary or inappropriate" charges, according to an audit released Tuesday.

The audit found that $514,000 of the $2.2 million spent in 2009 on the department's 5,000 cellphones went to devices that were never used, personal calls to foreign countries and other questionable ends.

DOCUMENT: Read the audit

"It is likely that the department paid for inappropriate charges in the prior and current years" as well, Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe wrote in her report.

Trish Ploehn, who was removed last week as director of the Department of Children and Family Services, was given a draft copy of the audit this fall.

Ploehn wrote in September that she would soon be providing the county Board of Supervisors with a detailed plan to address problems raised by the auditors.

"We generally agree with the majority of the recommendations contained in the report and completely concur that it is the department's responsibility to safeguard county resources," Ploehn wrote in her initial response to the report.

No additional plan from the department has been submitted, according to supervisors' aides and the county's website tracking correspondence between departments and the board.

Among the audit's findings:

--Welfare officials did not have up-to-date logs and could not identify users for more than 250 active phones.

--More than 1,400 cellphones were not used by employees, yet were activated and incurred $330,000 in service charges. At the same time, the department refused to give cellphones to child abuse investigators, county officials have acknowledged.

--Auditors carefully reviewed 20 users who appeared to have excessive charges and found one employee had incurred more than $2,000 in personal international long-distance charges.

--The department had 532 broadband cards to access the Internet from portable computers yet 220 were unused and incurred $90,000 in service fees.

Earlier this year, The Times reported that the department paid $5.9 million for about 2,400 of the portable computers in 2007 so that social workers investigating abuse or neglect allegations might better access data relevant to their probes. But the infrastructure was never put in place to make them functional out of the office, leading them to be used as desktop computers or simply collect dust.

Susan Herman, a spokeswoman for county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, said "the county takes the audit findings very seriously, and DCFS is going to be giving out a detailed response sometime soon."

Herman also said child welfare officials are reevaluating a policy of denying child abuse investigators cellphones after seeing so many devices go unused.

"We are committed to giving employees the tools they need to make children and families safe," she said.

According to the audit, the department already has begun canceling services for phones for which there was no identified user.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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