Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, pictured last year, said… (Irfan Khan )
A report released Thursday by the state auditor describes widespread deficiencies in Los Angeles County's oversight of abused and neglected children, finding that problems with the speed and quality of investigations remain despite years of promises by the Board of Supervisors.
In July 2010 the department reported 9,300 child abuse investigations that were open longer than the state's 30-day deadline. Although the backlog has decreased substantially, in January it was still 3,200, more than twice as large as it was in July 2009, according to the audit. Many of the cases involve multiple children suspected to be in peril.
Troubling geographic disparities continued as well. The average number of uncompleted investigations between July 2009 and November 2011 in Compton's regional office was more than three times the average of other regional offices.
In recent years, state regulators gave the county a temporary waiver allowing social workers 60 days to complete investigations, but the decision relied on the county's promise to conduct more thorough inquiries. The new standard was not properly communicated to social workers, however, and is not being met in most cases, the auditor said.
Assemblyman Henry Perea, the Fresno Democrat who called for the audit, said he would be sending a letter to California Department of Social Services Director William Lightbourne urging him to cancel the time extension "and return to the standard of 30 days that all other counties attempt to follow." Lightbourne's spokesman said Thursday that the director was still studying the issues and would not say if the waiver will be rescinded.
When investigations were finally completed, auditors said, the county did not follow state laws requiring the results to be reported to the state Department of Justice's child abuse database. As a result, the county hamstrung its own workers, who routinely use the database to check the record for the same households while placing children there.
Philip Browning, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said he appreciated the state report and that the county has completed a review of the audit and "we will respond to each concern."
The audit also reported that county workers have removed thousands of children from their parents and placed them with family members without performing required safety assessments.
In nine of 20 cases reviewed by auditors, the department failed to conduct criminal background checks before placing children with a relative. Between 2008 and 2010, the department assessed and approved less than a third of the homes and caregivers before placing children with relatives, the auditor said.
Nearly 900 children lived in homes of relatives that — once assessed by the department — were determined to be unsafe or inappropriate. It typically took 43 days to either remove these children from the placements or reassess and approve the homes, the auditor said.
Browning said the homes had generally been checked for criminal and child abuse records and a home visit had taken place, but a detailed study of the home did not always take place. He said the county and the auditor had disagreed about whether the law required such a detailed study before children were placed in the homes.
Perea, however, said the law was clear and there was no basis for a misunderstanding. "It is upsetting to see that L.A. County … was disingenuous about their interpretation of state laws and their own policies. Their system is flawed."
Nevertheless, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the department is finally on the mend a month after Browning was appointed as permanent child welfare chief.
"Philip Browning," Yaroslavsky said, "is one of the nation's great local government turnaround artists, and I feel very confident that these problems are in the past. He's putting an executive team in place that is outstanding. There are a lot of positive things going on in the department."
Browning said he told the board he needed two years to make the department a "national model" and is working swiftly to correct the agency's problems.
He said he made the unpopular decision to block employees from transferring away from underserved communities, and he is exploring financial incentives to keep them there. The quality of investigations is actually better than documents show, he said. Social workers are being given new tools to report their visits using mobile devices while they are in the field. And the department is relying heavily on statistics to keep workers accountable and identify problems.