California: San Luis Obispo Grand Jury criticisms of CPSChild welfare report raises questions Grand jury's findings show problems need addressing
Tribune editorial The Tribune, San Luis Obispo Let's be clear about this: Child Welfare Services can be a lightning rod for emotions; the job of reassigning children from natural to foster families can be nothing short of heart-wrenching for all concerned. So it's not totally surprising that each time the county grand jury puts CWS under the microscope, something will come bubbling to the surface. Such was the situation when the grand jury released its report this week that addressed some of the complaints surrounding 17 cases overseen by CWS. In a nutshell, the grand jury found: - problems in reporting and investigating child abuse - problems in placing children who have been removed from their homes - communication problems between rank-and-file workers and upper management. Lee Collins, director of the county's Department of Social Services, which oversees the Child Welfare division, fairly fumed in his contempt for the findings: "In nearly 30 years in Social Services, I have never seen a court report that is this poorly researched, so riddled with factual errors and so replete with allegations that are wholly without foundation. It is, in my view, a shocking embarrassment to its authors." If Collins sounds testy, it's understandable. His department, one of the largest in the county, has taken budget hits amounting to millions of dollars over the last couple of years. Those dollars equate to hiring freezes, loss of personnel and increased caseloads in an already stretched-thin operation. The coming year calls for more cuts. So when this year's grand jury used 17 complaint-driven cases -- with CWS handling more than 900 active cases per month -- as its basis for its findings, Collins cried foul. "It's a little over the top to look at 17 cases and indict a whole program," he said, adding that a more random review of cases would have led to more accurate conclusions. We agree. However, because the Department of Social Services is financed largely through state and federal money, it's also bound by state and federal privacy restrictions. In short, as much as the grand jury would have liked to have access to other cases, it was limited to only those that involved complaints. We noted a year ago that Social Services seemed to be a department under siege. Several individuals had been arrested on embezzlement charges, some 130 department employees had held a meeting with management to discuss their concerns about how the department was being run, and two watchdog groups -- the Women's Community Center Family Law Action Committee and Forum on Abused Children & the System -- were alleging abuses within the child welfare system. We wondered at the time if some of these concerns weren't becoming ingrained patterns of protocol rather than isolated incidences. This year's grand jury report does little to assuage those concerns. Does the Department of Social Services need an independent oversight committee? One that can be sworn to uphold privacy as it randomly checks cases and operations? Or can Social Services' management address the problems and allegations that have dogged the department for the last several years? Finally, can these problems even be adequately addressed while budgets shrink and caseloads grow? Collins has 60 days to respond to the grand jury's findings. We'll keep our powder dry until that time.
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