Sunday, August 28, 2011

County says child-protection rifts are mending

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star
Published: Saturday, August 27, 2011 2:14 AM CDT

SAN BERNARDINO — A representative from the county’s Children’s Assessment Center says it is working with partner agencies to resolve many of the shortcomings identified in a grand jury report.

An investigation into the Children and Family Services Department of San Bernardino County and its partner agencies found a dysfunctional relationship between CFS and the assessment center. The Children’s Assessment Center is a private-public partnership that provides medical and psychological evaluations to children of physical and sexual abuse. It partners with CFS, along with Loma Linda University Medical Center, law enforcement, the District Attorney and county Health Department to ensure child abuse cases are properly handled.

According to the report, the center sees between 80 and 100 children each month.

The investigation of CFS, formerly referred to as Child Protective Services, was done on behalf of the grand jury’s Human Services Committee, which reviews social services operations in the county.

Spokesmen from the county don’t deny tensions and communication barriers among CFS, the assessment center and other partner agencies, but they reject many allegations made in the grand jury report.

Assessment center affiliates alleged to grand jurors that some of the county’s social workers were unqualified and didn’t follow protocol.

“There is confusion as to how to work a case. Morale is low,” investigators wrote in their final report.

Despite their statements, jurors do not provide evidence to show CFS ever did anything wrong in its operations.

The grand jury listed lack of accountability and oversight as endemic problems in the CFS department. Jurors say Riverside County CFS uses an auditing system called Technical Assistance, Review and Consultation (TRAC). San Bernardino County CFS was offered training for the system but turned down the offer.

CFS has a heavy burden of responsibility. The county agency takes on numerous cases of potentially harmful home environments each month. In Yucca Valley alone, 60 cases have been referred to the CFS office this month. A local office worker, who did not want to be identified, said the number of cases usually increases during the beginning of the school season.

Department dissolves board of advisors

Jurors charged that CFS has eroded the leadership structure at the assessment center. They noted that CFS representatives discontinued the Child Assessment Center’s advisory board a few years ago and stopped attending other partner agency meetings.

Gregory Devereaux, CEO of San Bernardino County and chairman of the assessment center, said what occurred was a gradual lack of participation by key people from partner agencies.

“When it started, it was a high-level partnership with high-level involvement by all the players…. Over time, responsibilities would get passed down to the next level and the next level and the next. It wasn’t that the commitment waned, but the board got passed down to lower levels in those organizations,” Devereaux said via phone on Friday.

He said the advisory board needed people who had the capability to solve resource problems.

Devereaux says CFS and other agencies were aware of the communication issues and were working to resolve them during the time of the grand jury investigation. He and county spokesman David Wert acknowledged the discord between partnerships, but say none of the behind-the-scenes problems ever affected service to families or children.

Shrinking budgets, tightening tensions

A rift between CFS and Loma Linda University Medical Center, which provides forensic medical exams for children at the assessment center, can be traced to budget constraints.

In 2007, Loma Linda raised its rates of service. David Wert, public information officer for the county, says county administrators instructed CFS to see if the work could be done by another medical facility for a lower rate.

“Everybody’s budgets were already getting tight,” Wert said in a telephone interview Friday. “Some tension developed at that point.”

After CFS requested proposals from other hospitals, it was determined that Loma Linda was the only facility with qualified staff to perform the services needed.

The grand jury report noted CFS started asking the Sheriff’s Department to request and fund forensic medical exams, to offset some of the financial pressure.

‘Right people’ are working at it, CEO says

Aside from visible tensions, the report stated CFS was uncooperative with the grand jury when asked to release information. And the jury wasn’t the only one. CFS also requested a subpoena before releasing any information to the assessment center’s Child Death Review Team, which was investigating a child’s death.

“CFS hides behind a screen of confidentiality, and does not want to give out any information,” jurors wrote.

Devereaux said the “screen of confidentiality” isn’t a screen, but the law.

“The people that they interviewed don’t know the law,” he said.

Devereaux said by law, no agency can release information about its clients or patients unless subpoenaed by a judge.

Allegations aside, Devereaux and Wert said working relationships that once faltered are being restored. “We’ve gone to a new structure. We’ve got the right people at the table and relationships are being rebuilt,” Devereaux said.


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