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Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services
It Has Not Adequately Ensured the Health and Safety of All Children in Its Care

Report Number: 2018-126



About 2.2 million children—25 percent of all children in California—live in Los Angeles County. Under the purview of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (board of supervisors) and the California Department of Social Services (Social Services), the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (department) is responsible for protecting these children by responding to child abuse and neglect. The department receives allegations of child abuse or neglect through its centralized hotline, opens referrals for allegations of abuse and neglect, and routes them to one of its 19 regional offices for in‑person investigation and case management, if applicable.

The department’s budget increased by 22 percent from $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013–14 to $2.3 billion in 2017–18. This included funding for department staff who provide services for children, increasing the number of positions from 3,500 in fiscal year 2013–14 to 5,000 in fiscal year 2017–18. As its budget and staff have grown in recent years, the department’s overall caseload has decreased. According to department data, the number of allegations of abuse or neglect, in‑person responses to these allegations, and children receiving services from the department generally declined each year from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2017–18, as Table 1 shows.

Table 1
The Number of Children Receiving Child Welfare Services in Los Angeles County Has Generally Declined in Recent Years

2013–14 177,509 149,533 36,542
2014–15 176,682 148,319 35,441
2015–16 169,637 140,310 34,634
2016–17 167,500 136,243 34,052
2017–18 167,294 134,482 34,248

Source: The department’s child welfare services data from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2017–18.

* Number of children receiving child protective services, including emergency response, family maintenance, family reunification, permanent placement, and supportive transition.

Protecting the Well-Being of California’s Children

The system of laws and agencies California uses to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect—often referred to as child protective services—is part of a larger set of programs known as child welfare services (CWS). This system seeks to balance the right and responsibility parents have to raise their children with the State’s responsibility to protect children and promote their health and well‑being. Courts have ruled that the right of parents to the custody and care of their children is an important interest that warrants deference and protection and that this right should be disturbed only when parents act in a manner incompatible with parenthood. Courts have also declared that children are vested with rights of their own: they are entitled to protection, and parental rights must yield to the right of the State when children’s welfare requires it.

In addition to balancing the rights of parents and children, the department and CWS agencies throughout California must weigh the trauma children may endure by continuing to reside in homes in which they are being mistreated and the trauma children may suffer by being separated from their homes and parents. Research has shown that the consequences of child maltreatment can be profound and may endure long after the abuse or neglect occurs. These effects range in consequence from minor physical injuries, low self‑esteem, and attention disorders to violent behavior, severe brain damage, and death. However, research has also shown that removing children from their homes and primary caregivers, to whom they have some of their strongest emotional attachments, may also have profound effects, even if the removal is only for a short time. In particular, researchers have found that a high number of different caregivers can negatively affect a child’s social and emotional functioning, adaptive coping, self‑regulation, and ability to maintain healthy relationships.

The CWS Process

The decisions that social workers and others involved in the CWS system have to regularly make are profoundly difficult. As a result, California state law and other guidance from Social Services provide a rigorous framework that county CWS agencies must use to reach these decisions. Although juvenile dependency courts make final determinations on the custody of children, the department and other CWS agencies use various risk‑based assessments to determine what actions to take—including whether to remove children from homes—and to develop and maintain case plans that are responsive to children’s current and future needs.

Referrals and Investigations

Outcomes of Referrals of Child Abuse and Neglect

Source: California Penal Code and state regulations.

State law requires the department and other CWS agencies to operate a 24‑hour emergency hotline to receive and respond to allegations of child abuse or neglect (referrals). The department must conduct immediate in‑person responses in all situations in which referrals indicate children are in imminent danger of physical pain, injury, disability, severe emotional harm, or death. In addition, the department must conduct immediate in‑person responses when law enforcement makes referrals that children are at immediate risk of abuse, neglect, or exploitation. When an allegation could constitute abuse or neglect but the child is not at imminent risk, state law requires an in‑person response within 10 days. Department policy, however, specifies that this action must take place within five business days. The text box identifies the possible outcomes of a referral to the department.

As Figure 1 demonstrates, once the department substantiates referrals, children may either remain in their homes or be removed by social workers or law enforcement officers and placed in safe environments. In most instances, state law requires the department to determine whether they should open cases and provide family services within 30 days of their initial in‑person responses with the families. However, within those 30 days—and before the department decides whether to open a case—social workers must determine whether or not to leave children in the custody of their parents or guardians. Thus, during initial in‑person responses, social workers must conduct safety assessments related to this determination. Because even substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect do not necessarily mean that it is in the best interest of children to be removed from the custody of their parents, social workers conduct separate risk assessments that examine the likelihood of future referrals of abuse and neglect. These assessments, which are described in more detail below, help social workers determine whether the department should open cases and provide various family services.

Figure 1
State Law and Department Policy Establish a Clear Process for Responding to Allegations of Child Abuse or Neglect

Figure 1, state law and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services’ (department) policy establish a clear process for responding to allegations of child abuse or neglect.

Source: State law, Social Services’ Structured Decision Making Manual, and department policies.

Safety and Risk Assessments

To assess a child’s immediate safety, the risk of future referral, the family’s and child’s needs, and more, the National Council on Crime & Delinquency developed the Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools, which all California counties use. During the first in‑person response with a child for whom the department has received a referral, a social worker uses the SDM safety assessment to determine whether the child can remain safely in the home or whether the department should remove the child to a safer environment. This assessment examines the vulnerability of the child, the presence of different safety threats, and whether these threats can be adequately mitigated by protective actions or particular household strengths. Protective actions can include steps the social worker or family takes to reduce potential threats, such as identifying a stable support network that is willing to protect the child. Household strengths include the presence of at least one nonoffending caregiver who acknowledges the safety threats and demonstrates a willingness to protect the child from these threats.

The social worker must submit the completed safety assessment for supervisory review within two days of the initial in‑person response. If a social worker determines that a child can remain in a home where the social worker has identified one or more safety threats, the social worker must document all protective actions in a safety plan that the individuals involved—including the social worker and caregiver—sign and that the social worker’s supervisor approves.

While the safety assessment focuses on the immediate decision of whether to leave a child in the home, a risk assessment focuses on the longer‑term decision of whether the department should open a case and begin providing services to the child and the child’s family. These services can range from placing the child in a safe environment with regular visits from a social worker to leaving the child in the home and providing family maintenance services, such as professional counseling. During the risk assessment, a social worker considers a variety of factors that include the results of prior referrals and investigations, incidents of domestic violence, and the caregivers’ mental health, histories of drug abuse, and criminal arrest records.

Placement Decisions and Juvenile Courts

In the short term, the department has the responsibility to make decisions regarding the type and duration of services it provides to a specific child or family. A juvenile dependency court, however, ultimately makes decisions regarding the long‑term needs of each dependent child in the CWS system. State law requires the department to consider whether a child may remain safely in a home before removing that child. If the department believes that taking the child into its custody is necessary for the child’s protection, the department may petition a juvenile court to declare the child a dependent of the court. If the court orders a child to be removed from the custody of the offending parent or guardian, the court may decide to place the child under the care of the nonoffending parent or in out‑of‑home care.

State law and department policy establish a preference first for out‑of‑home care with a child’s relatives and then with nonrelative extended family members, including teachers, neighbors, and family friends. When the department is unable to place a child with a relative or nonrelative extended family member, it generally places the child with a resource family, which is a preapproved foster family. When it has exhausted all other options, the department may place a child in licensed congregate care.

Before placing a child with a relative or nonrelative extended family member, the department must conduct an initial in‑home inspection and a background check on all adults living in the home. The department may streamline these two steps in emergency situations. The department must then conduct a home environment assessment within five business days and generally perform a fingerprint‑based criminal background check (often referred to as live scan) within 10 days of the initial background check.2 Before an individual or family can become an approved resource family, the department must conduct a comprehensive in‑home assessment, and a live scan check of all adults living in the home.

Case Management and Reunification Assessments

Until the department closes a child’s case, it continues to provide case management and other services. For example, the department generally must perform visits at least once each month for each child with an open case to check on that child’s well‑being. It must conduct the majority of these visits at the child’s home rather than at other locations, such as at school. To assess if a child in an out‑of‑home placement should eventually be reunified with a parent, the department must also regularly review whether that parent is following a case plan that outlines the steps the parent must take to reunify with the child. To assess the risks of reunifying a child with a parent, the department must perform reunification assessments every six months. It must also complete a reunification assessment before any permanent placement decision—such as reunifying a child with one or both parents or placing the child in another home.

Supervisory Review and Other Quality Control Processes

Recognizing that social workers complete critical and complex tasks, state requirements and department policies include quality control processes aimed at ensuring that social workers are protecting at‑risk children. Specifically, the department charges its supervisors with upholding professional social work standards for their units. According to department policy, it expects supervisors to meet individually with each social worker in their units at least monthly and to approve safety assessments, risk assessments, investigative conclusions, and safety plans, among other documents. To ensure that supervisors have time to provide this oversight, the department—through its contract with the supervisors’ union—generally limits the number of social workers each supervisor may oversee to six. If a supervisor must oversee more than six social workers for more than 30 consecutive days, the union contract does not allow the department to discipline the supervisor for poor performance. In addition to supervisory review, state law and a court order require the department to conduct regular countywide evaluations of different performance outcomes, such as the recurrence of abuse or neglect in the county and the stability of the department’s placements.

State law permits, but does not require, the department to conduct reviews of the circumstances of any children who die within the county. When a child dies in Los Angeles County, mandated reporters, such as law enforcement, report the death to the department, which has a designated division—directed by the county counsel and board of supervisors—charged with reviewing child deaths. Specifically, for each child’s death, the department makes an initial determination of whether suspected or confirmed abuse or neglect may have led to the death. The department then identifies whether the child had interactions with the department, such as a prior referral or an ongoing case. If those interactions occurred and if the child died of suspected or confirmed abuse or neglect, the department reviews interactions between the child, the child’s guardians, and department staff. The department then completes a report that the county counsel and board of supervisors review. These reports may include findings that a social worker or supervisor did not comply with department policy and recommendations for how the department could improve its procedures and processes.


2 Beginning January 1, 2018, the Legislature amended state law to require the department to conduct the live scan within five business days of the relative placement or 10 days of the initial background check, whichever comes first. Go back to text

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