LA County DCFS failing to protect children from abuse, state auditors find
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services allows children to remain in unsafe and abusive situations longer than necessary — sometimes for months — by failing to complete neglect investigations accurately and on time, according to a California State Auditor report released Tuesday.
Auditors determined the department’s social workers completed 72% of safety assessments on time in 2017 and 2018.They also found several instances in which social workers prepared and submitted assessments without actually visiting the child’s home.
“Even if supervisors had identified and corrected many of these issues upon review, we found that they often completed such reviews long after social workers had made decisions regarding children’s safety,” the auditors said in the 43-page report.
The audit’s findings and recommendations will be beneficial in ensuring that children are better protected, said Bobby Cagle, director of the Department of Children and Family Services for the past 18 months.
“We worked very closely with the auditors to make sure they had what they needed to make the findings they needed to make,” Cagle said. “We should be welcoming of anybody who looks at our work with a critical eye.”
The Southern California News Group reached out to several child advocacy organizations regarding the audit but none returned phone calls and emails seeking comment.
The Department of Children and Family Services is the largest child welfare agency in the U.S., with 35,000 open cases at any given time.
137,000 allegations investigated
Last year, 225,000 calls were made to the department’s child protection hotline, resulting in the investigation of 137,000 allegations. Referrals to the hotline are routed by the department to one of its 19 regional offices for in-person investigations and case management.
State law requires the department to initiate investigations within 24 hours or 10 days, depending on the severity or circumstances of the referral. However, auditors found that the department met that requirement in only 19 of the 30 investigations that were reviewed.
151 days to investigate one case
In one instance, a social worker made a single attempt to contact a family within 24 hours, but did not make subsequent attempts.
“Once the department sought and found the family — 151 days after the referral — it removed the children from an unsafe home situation,” the report says.
Complaints that the department has failed to remove children from homes despite reports of abuse have made headlines.
In 2018, the department came under scrutiny after 10-year-old Anthony Avalos of Lancaster died of serious head injuries. Cigarette burns covered the boy’s body.
Law enforcement officers and child protective caseworkers documented years of severe abuse in the Avalos case, sources familiar with cases have told media outlets. They have said that despite the history, the boy was never permanently removed from the home.
Auditors also found the department struggled to complete neglect and abuse investigations within the mandated 30-day time frame.
The department adhered to that time frame for only nine of 30 referrals that were reviewed. Six of the investigations lasted more than 90 days, and one exceeded 400 days, according to the report.
The department’s inability to meet the 30-day timeline for investigations is often “cyclical’ and frequently at the mercy of school systems, which are the primary reporters for child abuse and neglect cases, Cagle said.
Assessments late, inaccurate
Auditors also found that safety and risk assessments completed by the department’s social workers were frequently late and inaccurate.
Out of 30 safety assessments that were reviewed, five did not accurately identify or attempt to address threats in the home, according to the report. In three instances, social workers filled out safety assessments without actually visiting the children’s homes, but asserted the homes were safe and without hazards, auditors found.
The report also says some assessments were inaccurate because social workers failed to consider important risk factors such as past domestic violence in homes or the results of previous investigations.
The department also failed to consistently perform required home inspections and criminal background checks before placing children with relatives, the auditors found.
Noting one glaring example, the report said: “The department did not complete the required background check for the relatives of one child until we raised the issue in December 2018 — nearly 800 days after placement.”
Auditors also determined the department did not consistently meet requirements for monthly in-home visits to evaluate the well-being of children in its care.
Two social workers were found to have repeatedly used nearly identical narratives to document ongoing visits for months, raising doubts whether visits had actually occurred, the report said.
To address problems detailed in the report, auditors said the agency should complete the following recommendations by November:
- Establish thresholds for the number of days that will trigger follow‑up from the department’s various levels of management.
- Implement a tracking mechanism to monitor and follow up on uncompleted or undocumented initial home inspections and background checks.
- Implement a tracking mechanism to monitor live scan criminal record checks.
- Conduct annual reviews of community organizations that perform home environment assessments to ensure they complete the assessments on schedule.
Cagle said the department is committed to addressing the recommendations and is focused on establishing a smaller ratio of supervisors to staff to better review cases.
“We are making strides in many areas,” he added. “Our concern is that we provide the best quality, timely services.”