A ‘horrific’ crisis. Hundreds of California Child Abuse reports intentionally
MADERA COUNTY, CA – Children faced “incredible pain and suffering” when a Madera County social worker intentionally discarded hundreds of child abuse reports last year, according to government emails uncovered in a Fresno Bee investigation.
Department emails examined by The Bee indicate at least some of the 357 reports may have been neglected for up to two months. The emails, obtained through a public records request, reveal a behind-the-scenes crisis in the fall of 2019 with Madera County Social Services workers scrambling to investigate hundreds of abandoned abuse referrals.
While sources said there is no known evidence that any child died as a result, emails show workers feared children suffered more abuse while reports were stuffed in waste bins and gathered dust around the social worker’s desk between September and November last year.
Deborah Martinez, the county’s social services director, outlined her dread in a Nov. 7 email to the county’s chief administrative officer at the time.
“There is no doubt that at a minimum, her actions placed children in danger,” Martinez wrote. “The ultimate impact to children and families (in) our community can’t be known but based upon some of the allegations that were made this social worker likely caused incredible pain and suffering.”
Dozens of the dumped cases were emergency reports — cases involving allegations of physical or sexual abuse, the emails show.
Multiple children later were removed from their homes days or weeks after their alleged abuse initially was reported, according to two department sources.
“Some were investigated and found substantiated — those kids would have been abused for that time,” one employee said in an interview. Two department employees were interviewed on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for speaking with The Bee.
Officials have not released the name of the social worker at the center of the controversy, but have confirmed she no longer is employed at the department.
The Madera County Sheriff’s Office in November launched a criminal investigation that remained open, more than four months after the case came to light.
Meanwhile, state officials said the Madera department never notified the California Department of Social Services. State authorities only learned of the case when The Bee contacted them for comment. State officials are scheduled to be in Madera this week.
The consequences and scope of the crisis remain unclear — and ongoing.
At least 75 of the 357 reports involved possible sexual or other physical abuse, requiring social workers to respond within 24 hours. Another 248 reports involved allegations of neglect and required a 10-day response, according to the emails.
Some of the cases may have been ignored for up to two months.
The outcomes of the remaining 34 reports are unclear, but may have ultimately been determined unfounded. Martinez, the county’s social services director, declined to say specifically, but noted that not every report leads to an investigation.
It’s unclear exactly how many children were involved in the 357 reports. Officials wouldn’t say whether each report is made for an individual child or whether reports group siblings together.
Martinez also refused to say how many children were removed from their homes in connection with the reports, saying those details were part of the ongoing criminal inquiry.
Two employees told The Bee some children would have been removed sooner had reports been investigated properly.
“All those reports could have led to a child’s death,” one employee said. “You don’t want a child to die on your watch. It’s the biggest fear for a department — a child’s death.”
Managers and supervisors were outraged when the problem finally surfaced in early November, according to the emails.
“They also state what was found puts children of Madera County at risk and in harm’s way,” Chris Aguirre, an eligibility supervisor, wrote in a Nov. 14 email to Martinez. “The story I was told is very disturbing and I am appalled at what the worker did. Any person would find the story horrifying.”
Martinez responded, acknowledging the department was “in crisis” and described it as “pretty horrific.”
“Something I never imagined we would be facing and we are working on safeguards to ensure that it can never happen again,” she replied to Aguirre.
Martinez learned of the deserted cases late in the day on Nov. 6.
The employee was placed on leave the following day and escorted from the building. Martinez initially declined to comment on the issue, including the worker’s status. But after The Bee obtained the department’s emails, Martinez confirmed the worker’s employment formally ended Nov. 12. She declined to say whether the worker was fired or quit.
A DEPARTMENT IN CHAOS
How the issue was uncovered remains unclear, and Martinez refused to say during a recent interview with The Bee.
All of the reports appear to have come through the department’s telephone hotline number, the emails reveal.
In the emails, workers describe “pieces of paper” and “post its” that “added up to referrals” found “on and around her desk.” Reports also were hidden in special locked waste baskets, typically used for shredded documents, employees told The Bee.
Workers described to The Bee seeing the locked blue waste bins taken into a conference room where they were dumped out. Workers searched for “blue sheets,” the form workers are supposed to fill out when reports come in through the department’s hotline.
Emails describe social workers racing to catch up with the backlogged caseload as the department conducted its internal review. Employees believed it would take up to a full month just to enter each case into the department’s system for review. On Nov. 15, an email was sent to all social workers interested in working overtime to help with the backlog.
Some of the referrals didn’t have a time or date indicating when the report came in. Employees in mid-November were instructed to enter “today’s date” in the appropriate field if they couldn’t find the proper date, emails show.
Supervisors and managers worried that some abuse reports may have fallen through the cracks altogether.
“Remember that this backlog dates back to September (maybe August but there is no evidence of that),” Danny Morris, deputy director of the Madera County Department of Social Service, wrote on Nov. 20.
The emails also reveal the challenges department supervisors faced sorting through the pile of abandoned reports, including questioning whether overtime pay was available, the effect on other cases, and the strain on workers.
“Social work supervisors would like OT (overtime) to process the backlog of CPS referrals that were just recently discovered,” a department supervisor wrote to Martinez in a Nov. 13 email. “Is this something you would be willing to discuss?”
Martinez responds to Aguirre saying “I can’t pay OT and going through the lengthy process to request authorization for straight time pay has not proven to be beneficial in accomplishing the goal.”
Eventually, social workers were paid overtime, but not social work supervisors, the emails show.
Supervisors also feared falling behind on other cases while the department worked through the backlog.
“I guess I am having a hard time figuring out which areas we can sacrifice and have lack of attention in order to meet the needs referenced,” Shanel Moore, a program manager, wrote in a Nov. 20 email.
It’s not clear when the department finally cleared those cases, but as of Jan. 2, the department still had 27 referrals to complete.
“Could we encourage our (social workers) to get them done as we would like to get these wrapped up soon so we can move on with our lives,” Heidi Sonzena, a program manager, wrote in a Jan. 2 email.
STATE LEFT IN THE DARK AMID CRIMINAL PROBE
The Madera County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 7 opened a criminal investigation, the same day the social worker was suspended.
Kayla Serratto, spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed the investigation continues. She declined to release any details. The Sheriff’s Office denied a public records request seeking case documents, citing a need to protect the now months-long investigation.
“Upon the conclusion of the investigation, the case will be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office,” Serratto said.
A state official said the California Department of Social Services was unaware of the case until contacted for comment by The Bee.
“We were not informed by the county and made contact after (The Bee’s) referral about this,” said Scott Murray, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services. Murray confirmed the state now is looking into the matter.
State officials also acknowledged the county department was not legally required to alert the state. Murray on Tuesday said state officials are scheduled to be in Madera County this week.
Martinez refused to answer questions about why the state did not know about the case.
Emails show at least some of the department’s top people wanted to keep the episode quiet, even within the office. Supervisors discussed concerns over specific employees learning of the incident.
Officials also discussed the possible ramifications of The Bee’s investigation. Martinez on Dec. 11 wrote it was “unfortunate for there to be an article on this topic,” saying “the county could use a break.”
The following day, Martinez sent another email saying the department would “just deal with the aftermath.”
‘RED FLAGS’ MISSED?
Employees interviewed by The Bee said the department likely missed “red flags” in the weeks before the disaster unfolded.
Child abuse reports typically spike in the fall, from August to around October, when schools resume after the summer break, Martinez acknowledged.
“The largest segment (of reports) are from educators — teachers,” Martinez said.
But that didn’t appear to happen in the fall of 2019 — until the rest of the reports were unearthed and the catastrophe erupted, employees told The Bee.
Martinez wouldn’t comment on what may have motivated the worker to discard the referrals.
“That’s a terrible thing to happen,” said Michael S. Wald, an emeritus professor of law at Stanford, who has drafted major federal and state legislation regarding child welfare.
Wald said the larger question is whether the department had any safeguards in place and, if so, why they apparently failed.
“That’s the bigger issue,” he said.
Martinez also said she couldn’t comment on what actions have been taken to prevent similar situations in the future because her department was still discussing preventive measures.
One employee said they were not aware of any new policies or safeguards, but said at least some steps have been taken, including the addition of a new group of hotline workers who screen calls.
“They completely brought in a new team,” an employee said.
NOT THE FIRST – OR WORST – BACKLOG EVER
News of the neglected abuse reports comes about two years after a 2018 Madera County Grand Jury report revealed a backlog of more than 1,000 cases in the department.
That unrelated backlog was linked to an “exodus of social workers” from the department between 2014 and 2016, the report found.
“During the period when DSS (Department of Social Services) was lacking social workers, a large number of client cases were left open, and services were not provided for these children,” according to the report. “There were over 1,000 of these referrals, some up to two years old.”
Martinez inherited the backlog of the more than 1,000 referrals when she took over the department in June 2017.
As the most recent crisis developed in November last year, Martinez reminded her colleagues she helped resolve the prior backlog through “aggressive and continuous recruitment,” hiring more workers, and implementing other accountability measures. That only came after failed attempts to reduce the backlog by having social work supervisors work extra hours.