The Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and Sheriff’s Office must make immediate changes to the way that the county reports and investigates incidents of child abuse and neglect, according to the terms of a settlement with the California Attorney General that was released on Thursday.
In 2016, the Office of California Attorney General (AG) launched an investigation into how the county was responding to child maltreatment and its compliance with the California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, the state law that outlines the responsibilities of mandated reporters.
After a legal battle with Humboldt County, the AG’s Department of Justice subpoenaed every report of child abuse or neglect in the county between 2011 and 2015.
“The institutions of Humboldt County entrusted to protect children failed them,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a press release. “What can be more important than public agencies performing their duties to safeguard the security and welfare of our kids? We owe it to our children to enforce these laws vigorously.”
According to a press release from the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, the AG’s inquiry was prompted by the concerns of local tribes and other community organizations relating to “barriers to service in the CWS Emergency Response function, primarily dealing with screening practices and cross-reporting between agencies.”
The settlement comes a year after the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury released a pair of reports that highlighted a number of issues with fielding reports of child abuse and neglect, including allegations that the county’s Child Welfare Services (CWS) has been slow to prioritize and follow up on reports of child abuse and neglect, including some instances where social workers chose not to investigate at all.
One report found that the Humboldt County Office of Education, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and CWS had “major problems” in how they “work together to handle the issues of our ‘at risk’ children.” Those issues were also exacerbated by a high number of social worker vacancies in the county, according to the grand jury.
According to the terms of the settlement with the AG’s Bureau of Children’s Justice, Humboldt County must take action in the next 30 days by creating an enhanced emergency response system, staffed 24 hours a day and seven days a week, that connects reporters of child abuse directly to specialized social workers to screen those allegations.
The county will also create a new electronic system to track reports of child abuse and neglect, including cross-reporting across different systems.
Along with the Sheriff’s Office, CWS must also revise its policies, practices and training around investigating reports of child abuse, including how to better work with tribal communities in the county.
The county has also entered into a two-year contract with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) to provide further training and technical assistance with its Structured Decision Making risk-assessment system. NCCD will also work with CWS to create a plan to help reduce backlogged investigations and ensure that all outstanding investigations are completed within a year.
As a result of the settlement, the county Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Health and Human Services must create a community task force that will recommend policies related to child abuse reporting on a quarterly basis.
In the next month, the county must appoint an outside compliance monitor. That person will issue bi-annual reports on progress made by the county to fulfill changes suggested by the settlement.