April 20, 2014
Final Reports
San Mateo Courts - Civil Grand Jury

2002-2003 Report:

San Mateo County's Child Welfare Services

Summary | Background | Findings | Conclusions | Recommendations| Response

Summary:

The Grand Jury investigated the administration of San Mateo County's Child Welfare Services, and concluded that although San Mateo County has an exemplary record, there is opportunity for improvement.

The Grand Jury interviewed representatives of the Juvenile Court, Human Services Agency and Private Defenders office, reviewed social worker case files and case plans, accompanied social workers through the workday and attended dependency court hearings. In addition, the Grand Jury reviewed reports and documents provided by, the Juvenile Court, Child Welfare Services, County Counsel, and federal and state agencies.

The Grand Jury found that the poor rapport that currently exists between the Agency and the Juvenile Court negatively affects the services provided to the children and families within the Child Welfare Services system. Communication between Child Welfare Services and Juvenile Court does not occur on a regular basis, and no process exists for communication during crisis situations. The Juvenile Court and Child Welfare Services need to communicate outside of the courtroom setting.

No formal, permanent body currently exists to provide ongoing, independent oversight of Child Welfare Services. An ad hoc County/Court committee was recently created by the Board of Supervisors to review the overall operations of the Child Welfare Services system and make recommendations based on its findings.

The Grand Jury is precluded from investigating the Juvenile Court, or making any recommendations about how the Juvenile Court should conduct its work.

Issue: Is San Mateo County’s Child Welfare Services system being effectively administered to best serve the children and families within the county?

Background:

The Grand Jury began an investigation of the Child Welfare Services in 2001, and continued its inquiry into the 2002-03 session. During the investigation, the death of a child, Angelo M., in the foster care program occurred. While the unfortunate death of that child is not part of this investigation, the administration of the Child Welfare Services System ("System") is addressed in this report.

The Grand Jury is precluded from investigating the Juvenile Court, or making any recommendations about how the Juvenile Court should conduct its work.

When a child's welfare is at stake, there are various agencies charged with responsibility to protect the child. The Child Welfare Services Court Handbook indicates that the Juvenile Court, the Child Welfare Services of the Human Services Agency ("Agency"), and Private Defenders ("Attorneys") work together to:

  • Protect and promote the welfare of all children in the county
  • Prevent, remedy, and assist in the solution of problems which may result in neglect, abuse or exploitation of children
  • Prevent unnecessary separation of children from their families
  • When appropriate, restore children back to their families once they have been removed
  • Place children in suitable adoptive homes, as necessary
  • Assure adequate and safe care of children when placed in protective custody.
The Agency is responsible for the well being of all children placed in the care of the county. The Juvenile Court is a branch of the Superior Court of California and is empowered to order protective services for children, and to enforce and review the delivery of those services by Child Welfare Services. If the Juvenile Court decides a child is being, or is at risk of being, abused or neglected, the child is placed in the custody of the Juvenile Court and may be removed from parental custody and taken out of the home. Based on input from social workers and subsequent compliance reviews by the Agency, the Juvenile Court determines how the child will be cared for, the duration of placement, and whether or not the child will be returned to the parents.

In carrying out this responsibility, the Juvenile Court Judge is encouraged by Section 4, subsection (e) of the Standards of Judicial Administration to:
  • "evaluate the criteria established by child protection agencies for initial removal and reunification decisions and communicate the court's expectation of what constitutes 'reasonable efforts' to prevent removal or hasten return of the child"

  • "exercise a leadership role in the development and maintenance of permanent programs of interagency cooperation and coordination among the court and the various public agencies that serve at-risk children and their parents."
Social workers make recommendations to the Juvenile Court for its determination of the course of action that is in the best of interests of the child. They investigate complaints, develop and propose dependency plans, monitor compliance with Juvenile Court orders, develop and present case review reports, and make recommendations to the court for placements. They may also arrange services, provide transportation and consult with counsel, foster parents, and service providers.

Court Officers are Agency staff members responsible for presenting the Agency's position in court at non-contested hearings, maintaining communication between the Agency and the Juvenile Court, and providing training and consultation to Agency staff.

Attorneys appointed through the Private Defenders Office provide counsel for children and parents in all Juvenile Court proceedings.

County Counsel provides consultation to Agency staff and represents them in Juvenile Court hearings involving contested dependency cases.

During its investigation, the Grand Jury interviewed representatives of the Juvenile Court, Agency and Private Defenders office, reviewed social worker case files and case plans, accompanied social workers through the work day and attended dependency court hearings. In addition, the Grand Jury reviewed reports and documents provided by, the Juvenile Court, the Agency, County Counsel, federal and state agencies, the Family to Family Initiative, the Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services ("Council on Accreditation"), the Bay Area Social Services Consortium, and the American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Union.

Findings:

Regarding Agency and Juvenile Court interaction:

There is no established process for the Agency, the Juvenile Court and other involved parties to address their respective concerns or attempt a mutual resolution of problems outside of formal court proceedings. Minimal communication between the Juvenile Court and Agency occurs. Since the death of Angelo M., communication has been primarily in the courtroom and through the press.

The Agency conducted an internal investigation of the events leading up to the death of Angelo M. The Juvenile Court held a series of hearings regarding Angelo M.'s sister, and issued a report that included lengthy findings and recommendations. The findings and conclusions of each investigation differ.

In its findings, the Juvenile Court is highly critical of the work performed by Agency personnel. The findings state that the Agency has continuously and purposefully tried to shield their work from public view to serve its own interests, and that Agency management seeks to vilify the Court to its employees and cultivates an "us versus them" mentality. The Agency denies these assertions. The Juvenile Court's findings also criticize the Agency for the following the advice of County Counsel.

The Agency indicated to the Grand Jury that recent criticism in the press does not take due note of the high quality of child welfare services the Agency provides.

There is disagreement among the Juvenile Court, the Agency and Attorneys over how effectively various participants in courtroom proceedings carry out their responsibilities.

In December 2002, The Bay Area Social Services Consortium did a study of the relationship between Child Dependency Systems and the Courts of 10 counties entitled "Child Welfare and the Courts: An Exploratory Study of the Relationship Between Two Complex Systems." The summary conclusion of their report states: "leadership on the part of Judges, agency directors and the directors of legal organizations serving children and families involved in juvenile dependency systems is critical to the success of initiatives to improve professional relationships. Leaders must foster a culture of respect, promote forums for communications, and develop joint advocacy strategies to increase public support and resources for the juvenile dependency system." The findings of the Grand Jury investigation support the same conclusion and recommendations.

Regarding the Agency:

According to a spokesman for the Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm, "San Mateo County has the reputation as having one of the best child welfare agencies in the state." (The Independent, April 22, 2003)

Agency staff state:

  • Social workers have less time available to interact with clients because they do not have adequate administrative support to handle timely data entry and reports

  • The Juvenile Court and Attorneys do not recognize the level of stress and difficulty associated with the responsibilities of social workers, and their concern for children and families is often not acknowledged

  • The courtroom environment is unnecessarily intimidating and discourages dialogue among participants
  • Few opportunities exist for social workers to raise concerns and make suggestions regarding the Agency's management and operations

  • Time for collaboration among colleagues is insufficient and does not allow for exchange of ideas and advice.
Social workers have an exceptionally high degree of responsibility for the safety of the children they serve. Many social workers are talented, sensitive and dedicated professionals who work long, hard hours in stressful situations.

Regarding Agency Oversight and Supervision

Training for new social worker supervisors and training for social workers regarding the roles and responsibilities of other participants who work in the courtroom is absent. Cultural awareness training is provided, but not mandatory.

Regular evaluations of social workers, supervisors and senior managers do not occur.

The Agency does not have a formal process for assessing its ongoing operations and certifying success.

In 1996, Congress amended the California Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. For states to receive funding for the Federal "Child Abuse and Neglect State Grants Program," states must establish Citizen Review Panels. In 1999, a Citizen's Review Panel ("Panel") was established in San Mateo County. There is an insufficient number of qualified volunteers to serve on the Panel, and Agency personnel have the primary role in assisting and directing the work of the Panel. "Guidelines and Protocol" for the Panel, developed by the Agency in December 2002, indicate the Panel has the responsibility to review and analyze the system of services provided, and make recommendations for improvements to the Agency. Its goals and objectives, duties and responsibilities, organizational structure and methods of recruiting and training members were developed by the Agency. The Panel has yet to address its responsibilities.

The presiding judge of the Superior Court and the County Manager recently created a specially selected, ad hoc joint County/Court committee, comprised of current and former members of the Court, professionals from child and family service agencies and programs, and a labor union director. Over the next several months, the committee will review the overall operation of the Child Welfare Services System with special attention given to:
  • Various roles and functions of participants, including the Juvenile Court and Agency
  • Judicial and non-judicial procedures used to provide services
  • How decisions are made to deliver services
  • Methods by which services are delivered
  • The constraints under which the System operates.
The State of California Department of Social Services conducted an independent investigation of the death of Angelo M. Its findings are currently unavailable to the public.

Regarding Agency Professional Improvement:

Agency management recently modified a number of programs and procedures and intensified activities already underway in an effort to reduce the risk that children might be harmed while under their supervision.

On March 16, 2003, the Health and Human Services Agency issued an internal memo indicating that the Agency's Children and Family Services Leadership Team "has undertaken a number of programmatic modifications, in addition to intensifying activities that were already underway." Stated in this memo are the Agency's plans to:
  • Strengthen the role of the Court Officer and the role of the paralegal support provided by County Counsel

  • Provide training to social workers to be more self-assured while representing cases in Juvenile Court

  • Work with County Counsel to develop a more effective process for preparing social workers for their appearances in contested court cases

  • Propose to the Juvenile Court that San Mateo County initiate a monthly meeting among all participants in Juvenile Court proceedings to review problems and concerns that arise from any sector of the system, noting that this type of regular communications has helped other counties ameliorate problems with the Juvenile Court.
The Agency recently implemented the Family to Family Program which is designed to promote the collaborative support of foster children and strive to keep children in their communities. It is currently introducing strategies to:
  • Recruit, train, retain and support foster care parents

  • Build community partnerships to assist neighborhood groups to identify and use local resources to support their children and parents

  • Provide greater opportunity for key participants (parents/guardians, foster parents, care providers, etc.) to provide significant input at critical decision times when children are in custody.
Consideration is being given by the Agency to obtaining accreditation through the Council on Accreditation. Accreditation offers a means of independently determining what professional standards have been met.

The Council on Accreditation has accredited more than 1,400 private and public organizations that serve more than six million children, individuals and families in the United States and Canada. Accreditation attests that an organization meets the highest national standards and is delivering the best quality services to the community. According to the Council on Accreditation, in order for the Child Dependency System to be accredited, the San Mateo County Human Services Agency as a whole must meet best practice organizational and service standards.

To achieve accreditation an agency must (1) complete a "Self-study Questionnaire" that will determine the quality of its present program and direct changes that will have to be made and (2) subject itself to a peer review panel of out-of-state professionals with expertise in the child dependency area who will validate that all standards have been met.

Conclusions:

The working relationship between the Agency and the Juvenile Court is rancorous and suffers from deep distrust and a serious lack of mutual respect.

Constructive communication between the Juvenile Court and the Agency outside of the courtroom is absent. There needs to be a cooperative work environment between the Agency and the Juvenile Court. In order to support the Juvenile Court's broad supervisory role of the Agency, it must communicate with the Agency outside of the courtroom setting.

The Agency has established an exemplary, positive professional reputation throughout the state.

While the recommendations to improve the child welfare services put forth by the Juvenile Court and the Agency are laudable, it would evoke more public confidence if the recommendations were promoted more by pre-planned collaborative efforts rather than in response to a crisis.

Morale among social workers is low and has been for some time.

The role and function of the Court Officer is unclear. How the position can be best utilized should be investigated.

Sporadic performance evaluations of workers in the Agency, the lack of in-house assessments and the absence of independent professional oversight make it difficult to assign accountability and objectively determine success.

There is no independent oversight that determines whether the Agency has fulfilled its responsibilities.

As currently structured, the Citizens Review Panel cannot provide independent oversight of the Agency. Independent review of the Agency is being provided by the specially selected, ad hoc committee in a response to a crisis, and does not provide ongoing, independent oversight.

The Grand Jury is optimistic that the sentiments expressed in the following quote will provide a starting point for an improved relationship between the Juvenile Court and Agency. "If we analyze the mistakes we all share in this case and prevent future tragedies from occurring, then and only then can we ensure that Angelo did not die in vain. This is ultimately Angelo's legacy. I hope that we are each of us responsible enough to accept it." (Concluding statement by the Juvenile Court, in its April 3, 2003 findings).

Recommendations:

  1. The management of the Agency must work with the Juvenile Court to create a permanent forum to promote dialogue between the Agency, Juvenile Court, the Private Defender and County Counsel. The forum should be designed to:

    • Develop trust and respect.

    • Discuss, analyze and resolve concerns on a regular basis, and create opportunities for social workers to directly participate in this dialogue.

    • Review and clarify courtroom participant roles, and if necessary, modify them to make them more effective. Particular attention should be given to the role of the Court Officer.

    • Review and assess courtroom proceedings on a regular basis so that the needs of all involved parties are better served.

    • Review and make recommendations to improve the manner in which clients are served.

    • Review procedures for responding to crisis situations when abuse or death of a child in the care of the System occurs.

  2. The County Manager must work with the Presiding Judge of the San Mateo County Superior Court to:

    • Ensure that a permanent forum (see Recommendation #1) is established and accomplishes its objectives

    • Implement "Recommendations for Improving Professional Relationships" outlined in the Bay Area Social Services Consortium's report.

  3. The management of the Agency must take steps to ensure that:

    When working with the Juvenile Court and Attorneys:

    • The Agency attempts to improve communication with all participants

    • Social worker concerns about working in the courtroom are made known to the Court, and the Court's offer to help in their training is accepted

    • Recommendations of the Juvenile Court in its April 3, 2003, findings are respectfully reviewed and implemented.

    When working within the Agency:

    • Recent procedural changes and program modifications made by the Children and Family Services Leadership Team are fully implemented and modified for compliance on a regular basis

    • Personnel evaluations are carried out according to county policy

    • Practices that encourage and provide for open, ongoing communication within the Agency are immediately developed and implemented

    • Needs of social workers are addressed and additional resources to support their work are provided whenever appropriate.

    Regarding Agency professional development:

    • Implementation of the Family to Family Program is expedited in a manner that does not lessen the amount of supervision provided to social workers or decrease the amount of time they have for face to face contact with the children and families they serve

    • By September 1, 2003, the Agency begins the Accreditation process in coordination with the Human Services Agency.

  4. The Board of Supervisors must:

    • Give high priority to providing the funds needed to support recommendations made by the Agency, the Court and the Grand Jury to improve child welfare services

    • Assume direct responsibility for ensuring that the Citizen's Review Panel is structured in a manner that provides independent oversight of the Child Welfare Services System, and that the Panel's findings and assessments are made known to the public on an ongoing basis. If this is not possible, an alternative means for providing and reporting independent oversight must be developed and implemented.

  5. The County Manager must direct the County/Court committee to:

    • Examine the working relationship between the Court, Agency management, and social workers and make recommendations for improvement
    • Request the Juvenile Court to develop an action plan to "exercise a leadership role in the development and maintenance of permanent programs of interagency cooperation and coordination among the court and the various public agencies that serve at-risk children and their parents," as encouraged by Section 4, subsection (e) of the Standards of Judicial Administration

    • Make recommendations to the Juvenile Court and Agency that will assist in the development of procedures to handle crisis situations where serious harm or death to a child in the care of the System occurs

    • Make their findings and recommendations known to the public when the study is complete.

Responses
© 2014 Superior Court of San Mateo County