Childish endeavor: Sacramento’s Child Protective Services hit with workload oversight critiques

Department hit with workload complaints and oversight critique

A showdown is brewing between Sacramento County’s child-welfare agents and those who manage them.

County employees with United Public Employees Local #1 last week staged a walkout to protest stalled labor negotiations. If the chatter from the 3,600-strong union of social workers and other employees is to be believed, a full-on strike might be next.

A tough yearly evaluation by the Child Protective Systems Oversight Committee last month asserted that some kids ended up in harm’s way because their social workers lacked critical-thinking skills and weren’t getting enough information from county mental-health workers.

Even with only nine critical incidents to examine last year, committee members uncovered many of the same issues they’ve raised before. Those trends included decision-making errors; flawed policies and procedures; and an inadequate understanding of how domestic violence, addiction and mental-health issues often overlap in child-abuse cases.

Some of those problems arise because of a lack of communication between the county’s CPS and mental-health divisions, both overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. In two cases—one in which a child died and another almost died—the panel said the mental-health system had direct information that, if conveyed to CPS, could have averted trouble.

DHSS director Sherri Heller said efforts are underway to address that. She and CPS deputy director Michelle Callejas also spoke during the February 25 hearing of creating a database to track multiple risk factors in families, revamping the agency’s critical-review process and addressing the issue of confirmation bias, in which social workers pursue evidence that supports a preconceived conclusion.

But there are other issues as well, said committee co-chair Gina Roberson. “What we’ve seen over the years, where we think the gap is, is really in the critical-thinking skills of the social workers,” she told supervisors.

Supervisor Phil Serna suggested that might be due, in part, to micromanaging the work of social workers through detailed policy forms that take away their discretion. “Perhaps we’ve institutionalized the asking of the wrong questions,” he suggested.

But, in at least one instance, discretion seemed to cause the problem. In the reviewed case, a social worker verified that parents left their child with an unsafe caregiver, then labeled the allegation as “unfounded” to keep the family intact, possibly because the parents expressed a willingness to work with CPS. “That same child was later left with a different unsafe caregiver and murdered,” the report states.

Roberson said the committee revealed a similar theme last year.

Next year’s funding allocation for the impacts of state-prison realignment also promises to help the downsized agency add some needed staffing.

Which could put a dent in one of the thorniest problems.

On the Facebook page for the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, a local social worker said the county was unwilling to negotiate on workload issues that would lead to better outcomes for kids caught up in the CPS system. He added that more than 600 workers were written up for participating in labor protests.

The county’s labor-relations manager, Robert Bonner, said a process already exists for labor and management to address workload concerns.