Dozens pack board chambers over child protection agency
ShareThisBy Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton
Published: Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 – 4:06 pm
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 – 4:26 pm
Sacramento County supervisors are being urged this afternoon to bring in an outside consultant to help oversee changes in the troubled Child Protective Services agency, but some officials are saying no change is needed in the leadership of CPS despite a critical new review of the agency.
Jim Hunt, the interim head of the countywide services agency, told the board that he agreed with a recommendation in an auditor’s review of the agency that someone be brought in to work with CPS leadership to improve the agency.
There is an “urgent need to have an outside group involved,” Hunt said.
His remarks came at the start of what may be hours of testimony and comment about an audit of CPS, which found systemic failures of leadership, poor morale and training and a sharp increase in the number of children who died on CPS’ watch.
The board chambers was packed with CPS officials and workers, as well as parents who are involved with current CPS cases and were waiting to speak.
Alyson Collier, head of the county’s CPS Oversight Committee, agreed that an outside consultant should be brought in to help change the agency’s direction, but she said that no change in leadership is needed at the helm of CPS because that would slow down progress. It would be “an error in judgment to change the leadership team,” she said, echoing comments from county executive Terry Schutten, who told The Bee last week that problems at CPS are related to policy and not leadership.
The review of CPS was ordered last July in the wake of a series of revelations in The Bee about problems inside CPS and a sharp increase in child deaths.
The auditor, MGT of America Inc., found that 13 deaths or near-deaths of children had occurred between 1997 and 2007, while there had been 10 such incidents in the last 15 months alone.
Supervisor Susan Peters asked the auditors why the death rate had shot up, but the reviewers said they did not have specific answers.
Lynn Frank, the county official who oversees CPS, then began telling the board about the difficulties of social workers’ jobs and about how painful it had been for CPS to be the focus of negative attention in recent months.
“The department as been as concerned as the general public has about the deaths of children in 2008,” Frank said.
CPS Director Laura Coulthard followed Frank, telling the board that she “welcomed” the recommendation for an outside consultant to help her repair problems at the agency and characterizing the MGT review of CPS as a positive report.
“This report really validates improvements we have under way,” she said.
Coulthard added that the workload for employees has gone up in the past year but said the agency was nonetheless concerned any time a child dies.
“We certainly recognize one missed opportunity to save a child is one too many,” she said.
The MGT review found that in seven child deaths studied CPS workers failed to follow policies correctly and that in four of the deaths they missed opportunities to take actions that may have resulted in the children being saved. The audit cautioned that there was no way to say for certain that those children would have been saved.
The report is the latest critical look at the agency. The county grand jury has been investigating CPS for months, and at one point had to send letters to all employees warning them that they must cooperate with the probe and should not let managers interfere.
In addition, a Bee investigation has found a series of problems, including the altering old files after one child was beaten to death. The Bee also found that 7 percent of CPS staff have criminal histories, with past problems ranging from charges or convictions for drug sales to theft and domestic violence.