Debunking CPS: A ride along with Sacramento’s Child Protective Services

Our writer pulls the curtain back on the agency with a scary reputation

Veteran social worker Dianne M. Roenicke runs the decision-making team at Sacramento County Child Protective Services. The agency has reduced foster-care entries by more than 50 percent since 2006.

Veteran social worker Dianne M. Roenicke runs the decision-making team at Sacramento County Child Protective Services. The agency has reduced foster-care entries by more than 50 percent since 2006.

photo by lovelle harris

In the creaky apartment of a young couple addicted to heroin, an employee of Sacramento County’s most feared agency makes herself comfortable.

Christina Juarez settles into a sofa and lays out a thicket of paperwork for the two new, nervous parents to sign. The bilingual social worker is a veteran of Child Protective Services, that murky agency that rips families apart and lets abused kids die tragic, avoidable deaths—or, at least that’s the demoralizing rap CPS has wrestled with over the past five years, thanks to high-profile child-abuse homicides and resulting political scrutiny.

In 2008, a spike in child deaths brought scathing reviews from the Sacramento County Grand Jury and consulting firm MGT of America Inc. As a result, the division underwent a massive overhaul and hitched itself to an improvement plan, updates of which CPS officials have presented to county supervisors since 2009.

“I think it’s accurate to say that CPS is no longer an agency in crisis,” health and human-services director Sherri Heller recently told supervisors.

According to the biannual progress report presented in October, 1,120 children were removed from their homes between April 2012 and March 2013. That means removals happened in 9.6 percent of the cases investigated—11,613 in total. That figure represents a steady, 50 percent decline since about 2006, and one of several areas of improvement internally, CPS officials told SN&R.

“Our [removal] numbers used to be really high,” acknowledged division manager Kim Pearson.

Sacramento’s foster-care system shed more than 2,600 children between 2002 and 2012, according to national data, giving it the ninth-largest reduction in the country. Rather than going straight into foster care, families are being plunged into other services that keep them intact.

Which is important, said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, because children who remain at home do substantially better than those who don’t.

CPS officials agree.

“We do not make good parents,” Pearson said. Removing a child from home, she added, is the “most invasive thing you can do.”

Which brings us back to Fair Oaks, where a 2-week-old girl sleeps in a portable crib at the feet of her drug-addicted parents. A pink headband orbiting her tiny crown, she is blissfully unaware of the systemic blockades that almost hijacked her entry into this world.

Two weeks earlier, her mother tested positive for opiates after giving birth at a nearby hospital. The newborn didn’t, but the situation was tenuous enough to require immediate response. At the hospital, Juarez found the parents amenable to treatment. More than willing, in fact—desperate.

“It’s kind of sad that it got to this point, because we’ve been seeking help for so long,” the young woman said, folding her legs onto a leather sofa beside her husband. “We didn’t want to deal with CPS. I mean, no one does.”

Before CPS caught wind of the couple’s troubles, the 24-year-old mother said she was bounced from one unwilling doctor to another. Even though she had health insurance, medical practitioners turned her away because they lacked experience treating heroin addiction, she said. The few doctors with that experience were booked. She tried kicking the habit at a methadone clinic, but the counselors never had time for her, and eventually, she slipped.

Her insurance-lacking husband never got the opportunity to be turned away.

Now, CPS is in their lives, advising them to get clean or risk losing their newborn. The couple is grateful for the intervention.

“It’s devastating that help is just not available,” the woman said.

“You almost have to be in CPS to get access to the programs,” nodded Juarez, confirming the hard reality.

The agreement Juarez presents allows the couple to enter what’s called Early Intervention Family Drug Court, an informal supervision program that provides immediate access to drug treatment. The program is voluntary, but the courts can intervene if the results are negative.

Juarez predicts a minimum of six months in the program, but that could change depending on the couple’s progress.

While the parents get treatment, their daughter will remain in the care of her maternal grandmother, who absorbed the information with a concerned frown. Juarez wanted to let the parents retain custody, but a dirty drug test days ago made that impossible.

“We do not want to put the baby in custody,” she told them. “That is our last resort.”

“No, you’ve been great. It’s not your fault—obviously,” the mother consoled.

Not all cases are this easy. While CPS has notched across-the-board improvements over the past few years, timely responses lag behind both state and national norms.

The Child Abuse Prevention Center president Sheila Boxley would like to see more resources for the thousands of families in need who don’t rise to the level of an official investigation, but will without help.

The local CPS hotline averages more than 4,200 calls a month. Hotline manager Wendy Christian said the three highest risk factors for child abuse are domestic violence, mental-health issues and substance abuse, and they typically overlap. Oftentimes, social workers are knocking on doors with little to no information about what they may encounter inside. And sometimes, cops are knocking.

Law enforcement handled eight child-welfare related investigations in the central city and at least five more in the unincorporated county last month. On November 17, five children, ages 6 through 14, were removed from a hotel room on the 7700 block of Stockton Boulevard when their parents couldn’t be located, Sacramento Police Department logs show. Two weeks earlier, social workers removed kids from a home on the 3000 block of Gardendale Road after officers arrested their 38-year-old mother for child endangerment and resisting a peace officer.

But that’s not the story on this tinder-dry autumn day. As Juarez steers a county-owned Prius onto a knotted North Highlands thoroughfare back toward headquarters, she allows herself a glimmer of hope about one of the five cases she’ll handle this week.

“I believe them,” she reflected. “I may be fooled, … [but] I think they’re an ideal case to give it a chance.”