Officials admit Child Abuse blunders
HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CA – County authorities are admitting to interagency communication breakdowns and negligent reporting in combating rampant child abuse, but say improvements are in the works.
Officials made the admissions late last week in response to two scathing civil grand jury reports about multi-agency failures by schools, law enforcement and county Child Welfare Services to report and combat child abuse effectively.
The grand jury probe concluded that Humboldt’s social services system is so structured that at times it appears “dysfunctional.”
The panel issued a two-pronged warning in the wake of an eight-month investigation:
- “The safety net for our children critically needs improvement.”
- “The children of Humboldt County are ill-served by the intake system that is meant to protect them!”
The Union reported in December that the county’s child abuse and neglect rate is nearly 50 percent higher than the California average, according to Mary Ann Hansen, executive director of First 5 Humboldt, the family support and child abuse prevention agency (Union, Dec. 10, 2016).
The weekend edition of the Times-Standard quoted Sheriff William Honsal acknowledging that communications between his office and Child Welfare Services have “absolutely failed over the last couple of years” to react quickly enough to reports of child abuse and neglect. He faulted Child Welfare case workers for lax communications but said the two agencies are at work on shoring them up, the newspaper quoted him stating.
The grand jury report voiced strong skepticism that the promised improvements will materialize.
Times-Standard reporter Will Houston also quoted Chris Hartley, Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools, that school district officials have been meeting monthly for several years with counterparts from the Department of Health and Human Services and that the dual grand jury reports will, belatedly, kick off discussions about coordinating child abuse reporting.
In stinging rebukes, two 2016-2017 civil grand jury reports, “Responding in Time to Help our ‘At Risk’ Children” and “Child Welfare in Humboldt: Getting the Door Open,” fault major problems in how schools, law enforcement and county agencies work to protect highly vulnerable youngsters.
“Lack of timeliness and follow-up can have devastating results,” warns the exposé on slow response times. Among the findings:
- School districts struggle with their responsibility as Mandated Reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect. They often describe their contacts with law enforcement and child welfare as “frustrating” and “problematic.”
- Of the five school districts investigated, comprising numerous schools, all representatives “expressed high levels of frustration with Child Welfare Services in the initial filing and subsequent handling of Mandated Reports.”
The Arcata School District gave high marks to the cooperation of the Arcata Police Department in child abuse investigations, but other districts registered multiple complaints about sheriff’s stations in their locales. Frequently, deputies “do not answer our calls,” “tell us they do not have sufficient personal to investigate” or they investigate “but do not leave a report” of the investigation.
School employees were “vociferous in their complaints” about Child Welfare Services. The grand jury spelled out the critical remarks:
- “They often do not return our calls.”
- “The Child Welfare hotline is “totally worthless.”
- “We don’t go that far South.”
- “That is not within our jurisdiction.”
- “You should call the sheriff’s office about this.”
School personnel told the grand jury that often they never receive a reply from Child Welfare about a filed Mandated Report. The most common replies, if any, are “does not meet the state requirements for intervention” or secondly, “referred to other services.”
The latter means Child Welfare made an initial inquiry and then referred a family to voluntary social services or another community agency – but did not follow-up on whether the family followed through.
Turning to law enforcement, virtually all the of officers interviewed stated that drugs and alcohol were involved in the majority of the Mandated Report cases they investigated.
Like the school districts, law enforcement cited numerous problems in dealing with Child Welfare. In multiple instances, the difficulty is a severe lack of timely interagency communication.
Two examples, according to law officers (CWS refers to Child Welfare Services):
- CWS tends to send a week’s supply of requests late Friday afternoon, making it difficult for the Sheriff’s Office to begin investigations until the following Monday.
- In cases involving possible physical or sexual abuse, law enforcement must be contacted within hours, but the sheriff’s office is sometimes called days or weeks after CWS receives an initial report.
The child abuse report voiced doubts, based on past experience, that law enforcement and Child Welfare will improve their mutual openness and communication.
“While the Grand Jury supports apparent current efforts to create a task force to improve transparency and communication, the history of such past efforts gives us reason to be skeptical at this time.”
All of the social workers interviewed “appeared to be seriously dedicated to the work they were doing” with at-risk children, but said the Department of Health and Human Services has overwhelming caseloads, high turnover and lack of experience in dealing with the caseload.
Child Welfare staff dismissed school district complaints, alleging that many Mandated Reporters do not know how to fill out their reports properly or understand the criteria to be followed.
However, the grand jury found that “of the approximately 250 redacted Mandated Reports that we read, not one was filled out inappropriately or inaccurately.”