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Thousands of investigations based on child abuse tips go unresolved

L.A. County's child welfare agency has a backlog of some 3,700 cases open 60 days or more. Department and union officials say they're 'at a breaking point' with current staffing levels.

May 15, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County's child welfare system has failed to complete investigations into child abuse hotline tips involving more than 18,000 children within the time mandated by the state, according to county records.

Because of the backlog, state regulators recently extended L.A. County's deadline for completing investigations from 30 days to 60, but Department of Children and Family Services officials have been unable to meet the new timeline as well. Some 3,700 cases — many involving multiple children — have been open two months or longer without determining whether abuse or neglect is taking place in the home.

The delays — which might leave children in dangerous situations until social workers complete their work — are the result of too few staff burdened with a litany of new tasks intended to reduce the deaths of children whose families already had come under the department's scrutiny.

"The social worker staff simply cannot keep up with everything we are asking them to do," department Director Trish Ploehn said. "All of the things that equate with quality do take time."

John Tanner, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents the social workers, said, "The emergency response system is at a breaking point. We have to reinvent it to best help social workers ensure child safety."

The crisis began last year after The Times reported that more than a dozen children had died of abuse or neglect in each of the two previous years after coming to the attention of the department. Internal investigations subsequently determined that most of those cases involved errors by the department that probably contributed to the fatalities, and that the errors were concentrated in the unit that handles emergency response.

Department officials responded by ordering more interviews, additional managerial oversight and other duties intended to improve the thoroughness of investigations.

But the work proved to be too much for the county's 596 emergency response unit workers — up only 80 from a year ago. They are charged with investigating about 160,000 tips that arrive each year through the child abuse hotline. Since July, about 7.5% of the cases opened based on those tips remained unresolved after 60 days or more.

A recent internal study also found systemic flaws in the unit's investigations.

The study found that evidence was often insufficient to fairly judge the situation or had been improperly gathered. Children were interviewed alone in only 66% of cases. And social workers on average spoke with fewer than two so-called collateral contacts — neighbors, friends, school officials and healthcare providers who know the children best.

On the positive side, it concluded that workers correctly assessed the evidence they gathered in 93% of cases.

Further complicating the investigators' work are the department's persistent technology problems. Computer databases with information about family histories are notoriously incomplete and cumbersome to use.

When workers go out into the field, they are not able to access the databases because they have no county-issued cellphones and little information about the child other than an Internet map printout for the last known address.

Despite an investment in laptop computers for field work, most social workers are not trained to use them and do not take them in the field because of unresolved connectivity issues, department spokesman Nishith Bhatt said.

Ploehn has worked for much of the past year to rebuild the emergency response unit. She expanded the unit's training program and ordered many cases to go through an extra layer of review by senior staffers who are held accountable for the inquiries' conclusion and often send investigations back for further work before closing a case.

As a result, investigators are filing far fewer unsubstantiated cases, a factor cited by California Department of Social Services Director John Wagner in his decision to temporarily suspend the 30-day deadline.

"This is significant, as it recognizes the extensive child safety enhancements we have implemented to ensure quality investigations and the time it takes for a social worker . . . to actually complete the required tasks," Bhatt said.

It's difficult to determine how much additional staff is needed, particularly in a time of steep budget cuts throughout many county departments.

In February, Ploehn told The Times that she would add 300 workers to the emergency response unit to aid completion of the investigations. But last month, in a presentation to the county's Commission for Children and Families, she reduced that target to 100 additional workers.

In a recent interview, Ploehn said she needs funding for 133 more workers — which would bring the total added to about 210 from a year ago — in order to bring caseloads to acceptable levels. The estimated cost of making those hires is $15.7 million.

"We have basically done all the reshuffling we can do internally," Ploehn said. "Our board and CEO are juggling a number of priorities and we need to make the case why these additional staff are critical."

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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