A high-profile case, a judge’s stern warning and a critical state audit have made Orange County a recent statewide example for critics who say child welfare systems suffer from chronic mismanagement and poor oversight.

The audit, by the California State Auditor, revealed that child welfare agencies here and elsewhere can fail to do basic background checks and assessments needed to ensure that vulnerable children, who have been neglected or abused, are not again put in unsafe situations.

“It’s really hard to even put into words how many changes need to be made, but certainly there needs to be a tremendous amount of oversight and accountability,” said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), a Republican candidate for governor who identifies closely with the Tea Party.

“I think the system itself is flawed and needs to be fundamentally reformed from the ground up.”

The audit of agencies in Orange, San Francisco and Butte counties found a series of problems that, it says, could lead to children being wrongfully kept in dangerous homes or removed unjustifiably.

“This report concludes that these agencies must provide better protection for abused and neglected children,” State Auditor Elaine Howe wrote in an April letter to Gov. Jerry Brown accompanying her report.

While the three counties rely on safety and risk assessments, she wrote, “the agencies’ social workers frequently did not prepare these assessments in a timely manner, or at all, and the information used in these assessments was often inaccurate.”

“This led to flawed evaluations of safety, risk, and needed services and, at times, led to poor decisions related to child safety.”

The audit also found cases in which there were long delays by the agency in trying to contact children who couldn’t be reached on the first attempt; and a failure to perform background checks on caregivers.

Orange County fared the best among the three counties, though auditors still found that county officials didn’t always adhere to their own policies and they need better training and oversight.

In one Orange County case, officials investigating neglect of a young medically vulnerable child learned that a neighbor was taking care of the child because the mother was homeless.

But a history check wasn’t performed until 10 days later, after the neighbor failed to take the child in for “vital medical appointments,” auditors found. That check revealed that the caregiver had “a 10‑year history of violent crime and drug‑related arrests” and had lost custody of her own children.

Additionally, auditors found a case where a caregiver’s previous substantiated neglect, mental health and alcohol abuse weren’t included in a risk assessment, despite those issues already being documented.

They also found three Orange County cases where inaccurate information in initial screening documents led to later response times than appropriate.

(Click here to read the audit.)

The audit looked at a random sample of 40 abuse cases at Orange County Child Protective Services, out of roughly 5,000 the agency handles each year.

County officials, meanwhile, say they appreciate the auditors’ feedback and are working to implement their recommendations.

“We’re committed to improving the safety of children and we want to do all that’s in our power to improve the process,” said TerryLynn Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Social Services Agency, which oversees CPS.

As for issues of incomplete and inaccurate information in initial reports, the social services agency has emphasized that the full picture often doesn’t emerge until later in the process.

“During the course of a child abuse investigation, additional information regarding alleged perpetrators and victims often becomes available or changes as the investigation progresses,” the agency wrote in its response to auditors.

Fisher declined to say if that was the case for the Orange County instances cited in the audit.

Donnelly, meanwhile, said two local cases raise serious questions about the agency, and led him to request that Orange County be included in the child welfare audit. Both cases, he said, should prompt Orange County supervisors to “absolutely” take a close look at their CPS agency.

The first centers on claims that faulty Child Protective Services investigations led to a nine year-old girl being placed in her father’s sole custody despite credible reports of sexual abuse.

“Every aspect of it has been deeply troubling,” Donnelly said of the case, which has drawn media attention locally and in Sacramento.

Brian Claypool, a high-profile attorney for the girl’s mother, Ruby Dillon, says there is a “mountain of evidence suggesting that [the] child has been molested,” including reports from a teacher, psychologist, medical doctor and the girl herself.

But when the teacher made an abuse report, Claypool claims, officials failed to follow through with a proper investigation. “CPS never interviewed the teacher, never interviewed [the girl] separately, and never interviewed the father” regarding that report, he said.

The same was true for reports by a doctor and a psychiatrist, according to Claypool.

CPS ultimately conducted 16 investigations and found the abuse claims to be “unfounded,” according to court records. Those findings later contributed to a family court ruling that the mother coached her daughter into making the claims.

Spokeswomen for the social services agency and court declined to discuss the case.

Social services officials have previously said they’re barred by law from publicly discussing specific cases, making it impossible to defend allegations levied by parents in the media.

Meanwhile, the Social Services Agency’s longtime liaison to family court was accused by county human resources officials of “possible perjury” and violations of agency policy regarding his testimony last February in Dillon’s custody case.

The liaison, Robert Muñoz, left county employment in September, according to a county spokeswoman. Fisher said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters, but that in general the court could review the original investigation documents if there were questions about a liaison’s testimony.

(Click here to read Dillon’s legal claim against the county.)

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has opened a perjury investigation into the custody case, but months into the probe it appears the family court has yet to provide key documents.

The sheriff’s investigator has been “facing some challenges” in obtaining court transcripts, Lt. Jeff Hallock wrote in a May 9 email.

The reason for the delay is unclear. Court spokeswoman Gwen Vieau didn’t return a message seeking comment on the issue.

The other case cited by Donnelly is that of Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick, who successfully sued the county over claims she was illegally denied custody of her two daughters after social workers filed false reports and suppressed key evidence.

An Orange County Superior Court jury ruled in her favor, concluding that two social workers acted with “malice, oppression or fraud,” and that managers were “deliberately indifferent to the need to train and/or supervise its employees adequately.”

The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, adding that there were wider problems at the agency.

“The evidence adduced at trial obviously caused both the jury and the judge to conclude not only that something seriously wrong was done to Fogarty-Hardwick in this case, but also that the wrongful conduct was not an isolated incident,” Justice William Bedsworth wrote in the appeals court opinion.

“That conclusion is something the County should be taking very seriously.”

(Click here to read the appeals court ruling.)

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the ruling in 2010, the county was ordered to pay $9.6 million – its most expensive liability judgement ever.

In their recent report, auditors cited three Orange County cases where false information in risk assessments led to improper decisions.

“In one example at Orange County, the social worker failed to indicate the caregiver’s prior substantiated neglect, mental health concerns, and alcohol abuse on the risk assessment, although all three issues were present in other case documents compiled before the assessment was prepared,” the audit states.

“As a result, the assessment indicated a low risk score when the score should have been high, resulting in a default decision to close the referral rather than the correct default decision to open a CWS case.”

Additionally, the audit found that Orange County officials didn’t conduct basic inquiries into some caregivers’ histories.

In the case of the “medically-vulnerable infant,” auditors found that a background check wasn’t conducted until 10 days after social services learned that a neighbor was taking care of the child.

“After hospital staff reported to the social worker that the infant was not being brought in for its vital medical appointments, the social worker made a formal inquiry into the caregiver’s background and discovered not only a 10‑year history of violent crime and drug‑related arrests but also a significant history of CWS intervention—including losing custody of her own children,” the audit states.

In their response, social services officials said such checks aren’t required by law, but should be performed anyways.

Ultimately, Donnelly says it’s time for some major changes to the way these agencies run.

Beyond a thorough overhaul, he has suggested a couple of specific reforms.

Many instances of conflicting court testimony, he said, can be cleared up by requiring social workers to record video and audio of their interactions with parents and children, provided consent is given.

“The overarching principle needs to be one that protect the constitutional rights of everyone involved,” said Donnelly, who has introduced a bill to require the recording. “Right now it’s the social worker’s word against he parents and children.”

He also suggested creating independent panels that parents can appeal to.

“Things absolutely should be changing,” he said.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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