Report 2000-500 Summary - May 2000

Department of Social Services: It Still Needs to Improve Its Oversight of County Child Welfare Services


The Department of Social Services (department) has been improving its oversight of county child welfare services since the Bureau of State Audits (bureau) conducted its 1998 audit; however, the department has not fully implemented all our recommendations. The department now conducts timely county compliance reviews-designed to ensure the health and safety of children-but it is still slow to give counties written reports of their deficiencies and remiss in ensuring counties promptly submit corrective action plans (CAPs). In addition, although it now reviews the timeliness of counties' emergency responses to allegations of abuse and neglect, the department does not always require CAPs when counties fail to respond quickly to emergencies. Further, because the department did not create a method of reviewing county administrative practices, it cannot be sure that counties are effectively managing their child welfare services. Finally, because it has not analyzed statewide data regarding deaths of children from abuse and neglect, the department cannot determine how its services may be failing to protect these children.

As part of its January 1998 audit report on Kern County's child protective services program, the bureau made the following three recommendations to the department to strengthen its leadership role in and improve its oversight of the State's child welfare services:

Because our previous report raised significant issues, the bureau decided that a follow-up audit was warranted. This report describes the department's progress in implementing our 1998 recommendations. In addition, the previous audit questioned the lack of comprehensive statewide information about the extent of children's deaths from abuse and neglect and reported on various state laws enacted at the time to address this need. Therefore, this report discusses the department's role in such information gathering and reviews its progress in determining how many children in California have died from abuse and neglect.

The department has made some progress in implementing our recommendations. Specifically, the department conducted the on-site portion of its compliance reviews of each county by June 30, 1998, and has plans to review each county at least once every three years. However, the department is slow to finish written compliance reports and follow up on CAPs it receives from counties. These delays may extend the time a county remains out of compliance with department regulations that are supposed to ensure that children are sufficiently protected.

In addition, the department has not fully implemented our recommendation to review county emergency response systems and administrative practices as part of its comprehensive monitoring. Although the department now reviews each county's emergency response system as part of its compliance review process, it does not always require a CAP from any county that fails to respond on time to allegations of abuse or neglect. Without formalized CAPs, the department cannot ensure counties are correcting problems that may risk the health and safety of children. Regarding our recommendation that it monitor county administrative practices, the department states that it addresses weak administrative practices, such as inadequate training of child welfare services caseworkers or poor supervision, when discovered during its compliance reviews. However, as a matter of routine, the department does not review the administrative practices of each county. As a result, it may fail to detect other weaknesses that, if corrected, could lead to more efficient and effective management of county resources designed to safeguard children.

Moreover, the department does not yet analyze existing data on children's deaths from abuse and neglect to identify potential systemic weaknesses in child welfare services or to consider the need for legislative or regulatory changes that would reduce these fatalities. A recent law, Chapter 1012, Statutes of 1999, should improve statewide data by requiring a new reporting and tracking system for all child fatalities from abuse and neglect, but a full year's data will not be available for analysis until January 2002.

To the department's credit, it continues to provide leadership to county child welfare services through its Structured Decision-Making Project. Initial results from this project, one of the department's progressive child welfare initiatives, are positive. Structured decision-making tools are designed to help caseworkers make critical decisions, such as how quickly to respond to allegations of child abuse or neglect. The goal of the Structured Decision-Making Project is to better safeguard children by improving caseworker assessments of family situations and children's protection needs. As of April 2000, twelve counties are using the tools, and three additional counties plan to implement them by fall 2000.