They’re Children at Risk of Abuse, and Their Caseworkers Are Stuck Home
Scores of investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect have been delayed or sharply curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic, records and interviews show.
By Garrett Therolf, Daniel Lempres and
Aug. 7, 2020
TOLLHOUSE, Calif. — In February, the child abuse hotline for Tollhouse, a small community in the Central Valley, received the first of several tips raising urgent concerns about the well-being of twin infant boys.
Child welfare workers quickly concluded that the infants, just 2 days old, were at grave risk. When they visited the mother, Kristina Braden, she readily admitted that her methamphetamine addiction had continued far into her pregnancy, case records show. This same addiction had contributed to a well-documented history of neglect that had already caused Ms. Braden to lose custody of her three older children.
The warning signs should have triggered an immediate intervention to protect the babies. Yet for the next month, as the coronavirus took off and California declared a stay-at-home order statewide in mid-March, the child welfare agency did almost nothing other than asking Ms. Braden to take a drug test, which she failed to do, records show.
The agency intervened only after an employee noticed that Ms. Braden had posted on Facebook that one child, Aiden, had died. The posting came 38 days after the initial call to the hotline.
Autopsy results are pending, but child welfare officials have determined that Aiden’s death was the result of neglect; his mother, who declined to comment, was found to be on methamphetamines the day after Aiden’s body was discovered in her bed, and the surviving infant was immediately removed from her care. Ms. Braden has not been criminally charged.
Throughout California, child welfare workers are deemed essential workers with life-or-death duties. But unlike police officers or firefighters, most child welfare workers are now working from home in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, records and interviews show, scores of investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect have been delayed or sharply curtailed during the pandemic.
In Fresno County, where Tollhouse sits in the foothills on the edge of the Sierra Nevada, about a third of the child welfare staff went on leave as the pandemic spread. Even those who remained on the job generally did work they could manage without leaving their homes.
Tricia Gonzalez, the head of Fresno County’s child protective services, said that as the outbreak accelerated, the agency struggled to maintain basic operations and was “trying to figure out how to basically turn everything around immediately.” The slow response to the Braden infants, she acknowledged, is symptomatic of the wider delays throughout the system.
“That’s not my preference, it’s not my expectation, but it is the reality due to my work force,” she said.
As the virus continues to rage across the country, it is vital for child welfare workers to have regular in-person contact with at-risk children, those who study child abuse say. The pandemic has cut many children off from routine interactions with teachers, counselors and doctors who are required by law to report signs of abuse or neglect. (Indeed, calls to child abuse hotlines have plummeted nationwide.)
Now many vulnerable children are largely out of sight, many of them cooped up in crowded apartments, often cared for by parents reeling from job loss and all the other stresses brought on by a pandemic with no discernible end.
Yet many child welfare workers — who fear infection and often lack adequate personal protective equipment, including masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer — have stopped performing a broad range of essential duties that typically require in-person visits.
The shift has been encouraged by the Trump administration, which issued guidance to child welfare agencies in March that relaxed a series of rules requiring caseworkers to meet face to face with abused or neglected children. In interviews, child welfare administrators in several states said they still have struggled to keep their caseworkers on the job, and some have begun offering hazard pay and free child care.
The consequences are now rippling across California, which has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation when the cost of living is taken into account, an environment that research shows puts children at an elevated risk of abuse and neglect. One in seven children in California is reported to a child abuse hotline by age 5, and at any given time nearly 90,000 children live under the oversight of California’s county-run child protective services agencies.
Under pressure from the Service Employees International Union, which represents child welfare workers, the rules governing this oversight were relaxed throughout the state in March to protect workers from the virus. After lobbying from the union, Gov. Gavin Newsom dropped a requirement mandating in-person visits by caseworkers to some 60,000 children in foster care, as well as 14,000 children who remain with their own families after being recently abused or neglected. The policy was in place for more than three months, until Mr. Newsom recently reversed it.
“You’re not going to get to the truth if you do it over the phone,” said Moses Castillo, a recently retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who spent more than a decade investigating child abuse cases.
In interviews, union officials defended their efforts to limit direct contact between child welfare workers and at-risk children. The virus, they argued, presents too big a threat to workers and children alike. “Obviously, this is the new normal and we need to make sure we’re assessing for abuse and neglect and doing it in a way that we can protect the social workers that families depend upon,” David Green, a lead negotiator for the union, said.
At the same time, many caseworkers have complained about a lack of personal protective equipment for months. Critical supplies have been rushed to hospitals and other front-line essential workers, but they have been slow to reach those responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect. Some have said privately that they have been forced to buy their own.
The union said it is trying to meet the needs of all its workers.
Scott Murray, a spokesman for Mr. Newsom, said the governor was trying to balance the competing demands of preventing the spread of the virus while also keeping watch over vulnerable children. “California will continue to work to protect child welfare and public health during these trying and uncertain times,” he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, child welfare workers have been exempt from stay-at-home orders because they have the legal responsibility to take emergency custody of abused children and, when necessary, place them in foster care.
Yet leaders at the federal, state and local levels have pushed these workers to carry out their duties from home as much as possible to limit the virus’s spread. The child welfare agency for Los Angeles County, the largest in the nation, has locked its doors, cutting off public access to the agency’s headquarters and 19 field offices. In addition to suspending public access, the agency’s leaders sent home virtually all employees.
Many abused children whom the agency deemed to be living under “high” or “very high” risk of renewed abuse were not visited for months, records and interviews show. Before the pandemic, child welfare workers in Los Angeles were required to at least try visiting children within five days of a new abuse allegation. Now they are allowed to take up to 10 days to respond to most new reports of mistreatment.
“We are in completely uncharted territory, and it concerns me greatly,” said Bobby Cagle, the director of the child welfare agency for Los Angeles County.
“The difficulty here,” he added, “is that we’re trying to balance the need for making those visits with the need to also protect our staff and to protect the child and family.”
A review of hundreds of pages of internal records, as well as interviews with dozens of child protective services workers, shows how California’s labor leaders also pressured key officials into letting caseworkers stay home.
In March, the union representing child abuse caseworkers began pushing Mr. Newsom’s administration to set aside long-established rules to allow its members to work remotely.
For a 10-week period ending June 30, for example, caseworkers were no longer required to fingerprint people applying to be foster parents; instead they ran their names through a database to check for any criminal history. And when older teenagers and young adults in foster care needed to change homes, caseworkers no longer visited to make sure the new residences were safe. A phone check was considered sufficient.
In interviews, some caseworkers said they had bristled at the efforts to get them out of the field, and they questioned why more effort was not put instead into training and equipping them to safely visit children.
Los Angeles County is still dealing with the fallout from the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, whose caseworkers faced criminal charges for failing to protect him until a judge dismissed the case last month.
The lack of regular in-person visits by child welfare staff gave his mother and her boyfriend more chances to torture him unnoticed, court records show, and the agency pledged to never allow such a case to happen again. Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend were each convicted of first-degree murder. Yet because of the virus, the division once responsible for Gabriel was exempted from the in-person visitation requirements.
The child welfare system that made the decision to keep the offices closed is overseen by the County Board of Supervisors, whose five members were all endorsed by the service union.
One supervisor, Hilda Solis, said in a statement that she was trying to get caseworkers the protective equipment they need to do more. The other four supervisors referred questions to a county spokeswoman. “There are no perfect answers to the questions we have been dealing with,” Amara Suarez, the spokeswoman, said. “But we have endeavored always to balance the needs of children, families and staff in all decisions.”
Laurence Du Sault, Ricky Rodas and Alyson Stamos contributed reporting. The reporters can be found on Twitter @gtherolf, @DanielLempres, @RickyTheRodas, @aksaule_alzhan, @alysonstamos and @laurencedsault.
This article was reported with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism and in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 7, 2020, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Children at Risk As Caseworkers Shelter at Home.