Re-alignment or Retreat from Responsibility?

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Looking back on legislative developments having an impact on California’s children in 2012, it is hard not to notice two things that smashed into each other:

  • The State has effectively ended any funding for child welfare, instead “re-aligning” that funding responsibility to California’s 58 very different counties and assuring them additional programmatic flexibility.
  • Outside news reports and audits excoriated the child welfare system in Los Angeles County, the State’s largest.

As the Los Angeles Times wrote in February of 2013 about an internal L.A. County review done in 2012, a “stifling bureaucracy” was impeding effective child welfare:

“Investigations tend to rely on bureaucratic rules, not common sense and close observation, the report found. The department has issued more than 4,000 pages of policies detailing how social workers should do their jobs.

‘Creating social work road maps with this level of ‘how-to’ is like expecting a therapist to use a script that tells her what questions to ask and what responses to expect from her client in a therapy session,” the report said.

Lowell Goodman, a spokesman for the union representing the social workers, said, ‘Even the finest social workers in the country could not perform their best work in this system.’

‘Paperwork and the relentless attention to following [thousands of pages of] policies supersedes hands-on social work in importance,’ he said.”

An audit by the State Bureau of State Audits found similar problems and has noted that the County has not addressed them. [1]

County failures in administering child welfare are not new.  Sacramento County, for example,also hired an outside consultant to review its operations after a spate of grisly child deaths were reported in the Sacramento Bee.  The consultant in its final report in 2009 identified a large number of bureaucratic impediments to social worker effectiveness that imperiled the lives of children. For example, the Sacramento County report found:

“The County’s guidelines for its social workers contain 167 policies spanning more than 1,300 pages. Over 60 percent of these guidelines were last created or updated more than five years ago. CPS’s existing guidelines include a mix of outdated or conflicting guidance, caused, for example, when the division created a new guideline without revoking or amending a prior guideline document related to the same procedure.”

“The current CPS requirements and  operating structure hamper its ability to provide child welfare services effectively and efficiently.  Moreover, inconsistent procedures and failure to follow best practices have resulted in negative  outcomes for some children in the County’s child welfare system. Utilizing poor practices has also resulted in families and children not receiving the best services to meet their needs.  Consequently, the issues within these families that brought them into the child welfare system in  the first place may continue to be unaddressed, leaving children at risk. Improving CPS  operations and processes is imperative if the County is to address these issues and optimize its  service delivery to families and children in the future.” 

Likewise, in response to news stories in Los Angeles County about CPS performance, SEIU Local 721 in 2011 authored an exhaustive and detailed set of recommendations for improving and streamlining operations and enhancing social worker productivity. Most of the suggestions could be implemented within existing resources. Suggestions included how to eliminate duplicative paperwork, improve coordination between departments and employees, and shift staffing to ensure greater productivity and job satisfaction. But, these suggestions have been largely ignored.

And all of these county-level failings took place during the world prior to re-alignment, when the State had the power of the purse to influence policy.  Now, while the federal government continues to look to the State as the one throat to choke when it comes to ensuring its Title IV-E money is well spent, the State has less of a central role in guiding child welfare policy than perhaps ever before.

What is clear is this:  only until State and federal governments get serious about monitoring how federal tax dollars are spent will California’s abused and neglected children obtain the level of care and services they deserve.

 

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