State Audit Slams Los Angeles Child Welfare Department for Leaving Children in ‘Unsafe and Abusive Situations’

A California state audit of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) issued on Tuesday said that the department puts children at risk of abuse and neglect by failing to complete safety and risk assessments on time and accurately.

The report, released by California state auditor Elaine M. Howle, reviewed 30 cases from fiscal year 2017-18 and revealed that among those cases, DCFS completed just 72 percent of safety assessments and 76 percent of risk assessments on time and entirely failed to complete 10 percent of safety assessments and 8 percent of risk assessments.

“As a result, the department leaves some children in unsafe and abusive situations for months,” the report reads.

Once investigations were opened, they were only completed within the 30-day timeframe required by state law in 30 percent of the cases reviewed.

“While DCFS did not meet its deadlines in 28 percent of the cases reviewed by the auditor, our department fared considerably better than other jurisdictions in California that have an average of 41 percent of their cases bypassing state deadlines,” said DCFS Director Bobby Cagle, in a statement.

The audit also found that these assessments, when completed, were “frequently inaccurate,” failing to identify important risk factors including domestic violence in the home or previous child welfare investigations. Forty percent of the 30 cases reviewed were found to be inaccurate, and 10 percent were completed without the social worker actually visiting the home.

The safety assessments focused on in the audit are conducted through an analytics tool called Structured Decision Making (SDM), the accuracy and value of which remains controversial.

The audit was conducted in the wake of the June 2018 death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, whose family was known to the department. While the report doesn’t specifically address this case, it raises concerns that although the department routinely reviews circumstances surrounding child deaths, it “does not have a process for ensuring that it implements the recommendations resulting from such reviews.”

The audit also identified other systemic issues with LA County’s child welfare system. When placing children with relative caregivers, the department failed to conduct required pre-placement criminal background checks in 77 percent of the of the 30 cases reviewed and failed to do home inspections prior to placement 27 percent of the time. In one of the cases reviewed, the department did not perform the background check until the auditors raised the issue in 2018, more than two years after the child’s initial placement.

Once children were under the watch of DCFS, social workers failed to consistently ensure their well-being or properly plan for their permanency. Despite a decrease in caseloads, the department failed to meet the state’s standard of completing monthly check-in visits for at least 95 percent of open cases. The department also failed to conduct reunification assessments, required by state law to occur every six months, on schedule in all but one case reviewed. The department does not have a policy to ensure its social workers meet this requirement, which assesses the capacity for children to be safely returned to their own homes.

Another issue discovered by the auditor is a lack of efficient oversight by DCFS supervisors. Department policy only requires supervisors to review a case before it is closed, which results in reviews that sometimes occur long after critical decisions about a child’s safety have already been made. The auditors note that they find this policy inadequate and report that the department fails to consistently comply with it, with many reviews completed after case closure and some never completed at all.

The audit laid out several recommendations for the department to address the issues identified in the report. That includes creating tracking mechanisms to flag when necessary assessments and inspections have not been completed, and setting a threshold for when a failure to take these steps will trigger follow up from management. The report also recommends setting new policies regarding timelines for supervisors to review cases and reduce caseworker-to-supervisor ratios to allow for closer monitoring.

According to the report, DCFS agrees with all of the findings and is working to correct the issues raised by the audit. The county Board of Supervisors is set to discuss the audit and how the county should respond at next Tuesday’s meeting.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 82 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change