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California auditor criticizes agencies for failing to check sex offender registry

Vulnerable people ended up in state-licensed facilities that harbored sex offenders — either residents or employees — because regulators failed to screen them out.

October 28, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Vulnerable people across California have ended up in state-licensed facilities that also harbored sex offenders because regulators failed to check the state registry for such offenders, officials acknowledged Thursday.

State Auditor Elaine M. Howle said the California Department of Social Services failed to check the sex offender registry even after her office advised the agency to do so in 2008.

"Both social services and county [child welfare services] agencies need to better ensure that these placements are safe," auditors reported in an examination that also looked at child welfare operations in three California counties in particular.

The facilities statewide with persons on the registry of sex offenders included foster homes, group homes and day-care centers for children, as well as facilities for adults with special needs and the elderly.

The auditor informed state social services regulators in July that addresses for more than 1,000 licensed facilities were also listed on the sex offender registry. Since then, regulators said, they investigated each instance. Their findings resulted in eight licenses being revoked or suspended.

Regulators also issued 31 orders barring individuals from licensed facilities, including 11 people in Los Angeles County and three in Riverside County, said Michael Weston, spokesman for the Department of Social Services.

Weston said that the vast majority of 1,000 sex offenders registered at the licensed homes and facilities had actually moved on.

"Some of the hits were years or even decades out of date," he said.

In addition to the sex offender finding, the audit also found:

• Although county child welfare agencies generally performed required background checks of applicable individuals and quickly removed children if a home was found to be inappropriate, they did not consistently notify Social Services of deficiencies or forward required information to justice officials.

• The percentage of children placed with private foster family agencies has continued to increase over the last decade, which has resulted in spending an additional $327 million in foster care payments between 2001 and 2010.

The audit was ordered earlier this year at the request of state Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno). It was also intended to compile data on deaths of children in Fresno, Sacramento and Alameda counties who were under the oversight of child protective services to ensure that social workers properly review the cases for systemic problems and implement reforms.

Auditors had sought to include data from Los Angeles County, but the county Board of Supervisors rebuffed subpoenas for child death information and hired outside lawyers to fight the inquiry, arguing that many of the records were subject to attorney-client privilege.

In response, Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said the county's decision to litigate imposed "unnecessary cost onto taxpayers" and delayed work that could save lives.

Lara noted that the governor, attorney general and other frequent auditees regularly recognize the state auditor's right to access privileged information, and he sponsored legislation that was recently signed by the governor to clarify that existing law requires Los Angeles County to turn over the records.

Los Angeles County's attorney, Daniel P. Barer, informed the state earlier this week that the county will now comply with the subpoenas and state officials expect to produce an audit of those records in January.

garrett.throlf@latimes.com

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