Santa Clara child welfare system fails key standards

The performance of Santa Clara County’s child welfare system last year fell below more than a dozen standards set by federal and state governments while struggling with limited staff to meet higher caseloads of foster children, according to county officials.

A review of the county’s implementation of foster care from last April to June showed that it missed U.S. government goals such as preventing repeated maltreatment of children, making sure social workers performed timely visits, reuniting children with families and arranging for adoptions within 12 months of care, among others.

The county’s Child Welfare Services also did not meet California’s goals for timely medical and dental exams for foster youth and responding to emergency referrals about child neglect and abuse within 10 days.

The agency, however, did exceed federal targets in monthly at-home caseworker visits, median time for reuniting children in care for 8 days or longer with their families, children ready to be adopted when they leave care and children with only one or two care placements.

The findings, compiled in a quarterly report by the county’s Social Services Agency, will be presented Thursday at the meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Children, Seniors and Families Committee at the County Government Center in San Jose.

Lori Medina, director of the Department of Family and Children’s Services, said that the rise in demand for foster care is due in part to county population increases but the state’s passage of Assembly Bill 12 in 2010 has had a greater impact.

The law as of 2012 permitted those in foster care in California at age 18 to remain in care to age 19, rising to age 20 in 2013 and 21 as of 2014, if they met certain criteria such as completing high school, being employed or going to college. As a result, social workers in her department are now at or above their caseload standards, Medina said:

“We have been in the process of rebuilding our staffing. … There has really been a lot of triaging.”

Medina said the county’s Mental Health Department is looking at contracting with an expert panel to review the cases of foster care children authorized to receive psychotropic, or brain-changing medication, which amounted to 12.4 percent of its foster children last spring, about equal to the statewide average.

The reviews would be made to ensure that children under the county’s watch are being medicated properly for psychological rather than behavioral issues. Each recommendation that a child receive medication for mental health issues goes through “a very rigorous process” and must be approved by a Superior Court judge before the youth may be treated with them, Medina said.

The quarterly report was prepared to provide the Board of Supervisors with an update on the Child Welfare Services System Improvement Plan, a five-year strategy supervisors approved in 2013 focused on reducing the over-representation of African American and Latino children entering the child welfare system.

In 2013, nearly 8 percent of the county’s children who went into foster care were African American, who made up an estimated 2.2 percent of the county population in 2014, and 68 percent were Latino, who represented about 37 percent of residents, according to the report.

Other ethnic groups listed within the county were Asians, with about 31 percent of the population and 6.3 percent of the foster children, whites who make up 23.4 percent of residents but 17.3 percent of care referrals and Native Americans at 0.2 percent of the people and 0.4 percent of those in care.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, the department supervised 336 licensed foster care homes and 1,276 children were in supervised foster care, according the Social Services Agency 2014 Fact Sheet.

The department accepted 16,688 reports of child abuse and neglect during the 2013-2014 fiscal year, filed 615 petitions with the county juvenile court and of that 518 children were declared dependants of the court and assigned to family reunification services.

Social Services in 2014 had a budget of $592 million and more than 94 percent of its funds were derived from federal and state sources.