Social workers are slow to respond, lagging behind other counties

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Alameda County social workers routinely fail to respond to child abuse and neglect referrals with legally required urgency, new analysis finds, suggesting systemic flaws behind county’s apparent failure to protect eight-year-old child year-old abused Hayward who died earlier this year in his mother’s care.

The data of the California Child Welfare Indicators Project – a collaboration between UC Berkeley and the California Department of Social Services – reveals that Alameda County lags nearly all counties in California in responding to reports of abuse and neglect in legally required timeframes, putting hundreds of vulnerable children at further risk of harm. In addition, an unusually high number of complaints are deemed to require no response.

The findings follow a Bay Area News Group investigation published in June into a child abuse case that resulted in the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason of Hayward. The investigation found that seven separate abuse complaints had been filed with the Alameda County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) in the last 15 months of his life, but social workers have repeatedly determined that she was safe, often without even attempting an in-person assessment. .

“There’s a reason we have these fixed deadlines, and that’s to protect the safety of children,” said Nicol Stolar-Peterson, a licensed clinical social worker and child abuse expert. “When you have someone hurting children and there’s no intervention to stop them, they’re essentially unchecked and there’s nothing stopping them from causing more harm.”

Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi, DCFS Director Michelle Love and spokesperson Sylvia Soublet did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

State law requires that when child protection complaints meet the state definition of child abuse or neglect, a social worker must conduct an in-person investigation within 10 calendar days or, in the most serious cases, immediately.

In the first four months of 2022, 316 complaints of child abuse or neglect were not dealt with within the required 10-day period, equivalent to 51.5% of these cases. That’s nearly four times higher than the statewide average of 13.8% and the worst of any county in the state outside of Tulare.

By comparison, only 21 children in Contra Costa County were not visited within the required 10-day window — a figure that represents just 2.7% of the county’s cases.

In the most critical cases, which require investigation within 24 hours, social workers in Alameda County have missed their targets over the same period at twice the statewide average rate – no not responding promptly to reports of child abuse or neglect involving 64 children, or 13.5% of cases, compared to 6.1% in California.

Christopher Keane, a San Francisco-based child abuse lawyer, said delaying an investigation for even one day could make a significant difference in a child’s life.

“Bad things don’t always happen, but when they do happen – and they could have been avoided – that’s when system failures are consequential,” he said. . “Children are too important to leave that to chance.”

An investigation loses its effectiveness as the time elapses between when a report is made and when a social worker is dispatched to assess a situation, Keane said. Delayed investigations could give an abusive parent or guardian more time to persuade children to change their stories; the length of time may also mean that visible signs of abuse, such as bruising, fade or disappear before a visit from a social worker.

“Time matters – and that could have irreversible significance for some children,” Keane said.

The data shows that Alameda County social workers are also choosing not to investigate a large number of complaints, a finding that has drawn additional criticism from some outside observers.

More than 5,500 child abuse and neglect complaints filed in 2021 with DCFS of Alameda County — about half of the total — were “assessed,” meaning they never made the cut. investigated and social workers chose not to conduct an in-person assessment. The county’s 50% rate is about double the statewide average of 28%.

In Sophia’s case, five of the seven reports of abuse and neglect made in just 10 months were assessed. In some of these cases, family members claimed to have told social workers that Sophia had visible bruises and admitted to being injured by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.

“I think this sends a message to abusive parents or guardians that they can abuse their children with impunity, and that no one comes to examine them, monitor them or save their children,” said Carly Sanchez, an attorney representing Sophia’s . family. “And what’s particularly troubling is that Sophia’s case is an example of exactly what can happen if you choose to ignore legitimate abuse or neglect references, that is, a child can end up dying.”

In late June, two Alameda County supervisors — Nate Miley and David Haubert — vowed to investigate the handling of Sophia’s child protection case. As of mid-August, neither had released any information or called for a formal audit of their case or of DCFS policies and practices.

Contacted Thursday, Haubert said he was unaware of the latest statistics regarding department response times, but again said he was “looking into it internally.”

“We are all concerned about the welfare of our children,” he added.

It’s unclear why Alameda County has fallen so far behind most California counties in responding to and investigating reports of child abuse and neglect. However, the emails obtained by this news agency provide some insight.

In an email to the entire DCFS on June 10, Brittany Walker Pettigrew, director of DCFS’s Prevention and Intake Services Division, said the agency is facing “challenging times” and she implored at least half a dozen employees to temporarily leave their posts. in other areas of the agency to help investigate reports of abuse and neglect in the Emergency Response Unit.

But at the start of August – just two months after the first email – it appeared little progress had been made in addressing the agency’s staffing shortages.

Walker Pettigrew sent another agency-wide email on Aug. 9 thanking those who volunteered to help with investigations, but said the agency “needs additional support.”

An Alameda County DCFS employee who spoke anonymously to the Bay Area News Group said the agency has lost many emergency response workers during the COVID-19 pandemic because people don’t didn’t want to go out to investigate and risk being infected.

“I think for a lot of people they just don’t want to go out anymore,” said the employee, who is not authorized to speak to the media. “And when you don’t have the bodies, things just get pushed back, pushed back, pushed back.”

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