Nearly three years ago, the California Department of Justice launched an investigation into violations of the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) here in Humboldt County, and while the Attorney General’s office hasn’t identified any specific infractions, a stipulated judgment filed in court Wednesday points to significant flaws in the way these cases were handled locally.

In interviews with the Outpost, local officials say the county’s methods for responding to reports of child abuse and neglect were compromised by inefficiencies, outdated technology and poor inter-agency communication, particularly between the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and the Child Welfare Services (CWS) branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

As a result of these systemic problems, various community partners, including local tribes, were left feeling that their reports of abuse and neglect had been ignored or allowed to fall through the cracks.

Child Welfare Services Program Manager Nica Meggerson said it’s likely that cases of child abuse did fall through the cracks over the years.

It’s bound to have happened,” she said. “We’re going off the assumption [that] it probably did. We’d better change this now.”

Sheriff William Honsal agreed. “I think there were some things that were not reported to us and some things, also, that were not reported [from the Sheriff’s Office] back to Child Welfare because of an old, antiquated system,” one that relied in part on handwritten forms and fax machines, he said. “This was something that just didn’t work.”

As part of the stipulated judgment issued earlier this week, the Sheriff’s Office and DHHS entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to make a series of systemic changes to ensure there are no more violations of the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.

Those changes, enumerated in a press release issued by DHHS Thursday morning, include switching from a paper- to electronic-based intake system at CWS; crafting a guide to better educate mandated reporters; creating a formal complaint process; implementing emergency response systems that are available 24/7; and improving collaboration with local tribes, among other measures. 

Many changes have already been made. The processes for cross-reporting with law enforcement and communicating with mandated reporters — people whose jobs require them to report suspicions of abuse or neglect to authorities — have been strengthened in an effort to ensure everyone involved feels they’ve been heard, Meggerson said.

“It’s really going to be much better for our community,” she said.

CWS has created four new electronic systems since the beginning of the Attorney General’s Office investigation in 2015, Meggerson said. “We’ve already seen how much easier and quicker it makes the process. Extending that and expanding that is our goal.”

Honsal said his office also has beefed up its systems for taking reports and tracking cases over time and between agencies.

“The biggest thing,” Honsal said, “as a Sheriff’s Office we’ve dedicated two detectives to investigate child abuse cases. We have prioritized this because it’s that big of a deal. We want to make sure all these cases are followed up on.”

In the past, reported cases of suspected child abuse were sometimes found, after an investigation, not to meet the legal standards for abuse, and with those cases in particular information could fall through the cracks — either because privacy laws prevent full disclosure of the outcome to reporting parties or because the absence of legal actions left little or no record to look back on. 

“Now every case that comes over gets a case number so we can track all of those [activities],” Honsal said.

The sheriff is so confident in the strength of the new systems being implemented that he believes the methods of communication and cross-reporting can be extended to other law enforcement agencies and even serve as an example to be replicated.

“Hopefully it’s a model that the rest of the state can take over,” Honsal said. “We are leading the way now.”

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DOCUMENT: Stipulation for Entry of Final Judgment; Proposed Final Judgment; Memorandum of Understanding Between DHHS and the Sheriff’s Office