A new state audit of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services finds the department failed to complete investigations within the allotted time, risking the health and safety of children.
The audit was the result of calls for action after several children died, including Gabriel Fernandez in 2013 and Anthony Avalos in 2018.
"The state audit report validates the fact that there's a systematic failure," said Brian Claypool, an attorney for the Avalos family.
Anthony Avalos was tortured and killed at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend last year, prosecutors said. It was a family that the NBC4 I-Team revealed had a history with the DCFS. Social workers made multiple contacts with the young boy from 2013 to 2016, including investigating sexual abuse.
The state audit of DCFS found "the department has unnecessarily risked the health and safety of children in its care" and has left children in "unsafe and abusive situations for months longer than necessary."
"In the Anthony Avalos case there were three mandated reporters of abuse within two days and it took the social workers almost four days to even go out and investigate," Claypool said.
In the cases reviewed by auditors some social workers did not attempt to address safety threats in the children's' homes. Out of 30 risk assessments reviewed, 12 were inaccurate largely because social workers did not take important risk factors like past domestic violence into account.
The audit says the some workers failed to conduct monthly visits to check on a child's well-being or complete safety and risk assessments. These are tools used to decide if a child should be taken out of an unsafe environment, for example.
"There were frankly policies that were contradictory and had been left there for years," said Bobby Cagle, who took over as director of the DCFS, 18 months ago.
He says training on those tools is happening now which he says had not happened before he took the position. He also says 30-day overdue cases have gone from approximately 28% to 8% today, even though he says some cases need more time.
"What I am telling my staff is, 'I want you to attend to the safety of the children to close cases timely when you can,'" Cagle said. "I want you to err on the side of safety even if it goes over the 30 days because it's that important."
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Calls for more training of staff and better tracking of cases are similar to those of years past.
NBC4 followed the creation of a Blue-Ribbon Commission after Gabriel Fernandez's death in 2013, the opening of the Office of Child Protection, and the hiring of thousands of social workers.
The audit concludes, while the department does robust reviews after the death of a child, it "does not have a mechanism to ensure it consistently implements recommendations resulting from these reviews."
"I think they are wrong with that," Cagle said. It is one of the only things he takes issue with in the audit, but he vows to follow through with the recommendations.
"As long as I am here those will be followed through on and I invite you to come next year and ask me that question," he said.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, who called for the audit says the report called on the department to improve staff training and supervision, enhance its quality control processes and develop a process to ensure investigations, risk assessments, home inspections and background checks are completed quickly.
In addition to the audit request, Lackey has introduced Gabriel's Law (AB 1450), to improve how counties handle cross-reports of child abuse and neglect.
Executive Board Member of SEIU Local 721 and DCFS social worker for the past 18 years, David Green, responded to the audit with this statement:
"SEIU local 721 was made aware that this audit was being released and the audit highlights systemic issues that our social workers have been sounding the alarm on for years. The reality is that LA County DCFS does not currently have enough social workers to meet the needs of the largest child welfare system in the United States. This is why our members have been at the forefront of: demanding additional staff, a lower span of control for our supervisors and creating a mentoring program for all new social workers. In fact, in 2013, our social workers went on strike to fight for adequate staffing to help keep children safe. Our mission is to ensure that all children are safe and our workers have the resources to meet their needs."
County Supervisor Hilda Solis told NBC4 that her "commitment to the 35,000 children served by DCFS has never been stronger, and has been reinforced in recent weeks. Recently, the board of supervisors approved my motion to create a family treatment court to better serve families with substance use problems to empower them to focus on recovery and child safety. And just yesterday, the board of supervisors approved my motion to create an Office of Equity within DCFS to target racial disproportionality and better serve the unique needs of LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system."
County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement that the audit "uncovered disturbing gaps in DCFS's work. It is unacceptable that even one child in an unsafe or abusive home languish one day longer because someone in the department missed a deadline or fudged paperwork. It is up to us to protect these children and the thought that we are not taking every precaution to ensure every child in danger is placed into a safe home is maddening. Tragedies happen. But I do not accept that they are unavoidable — especially when this department is involved. I appreciate that our social workers do difficult work but we rely on their judgment to protect our children."