Humboldt County’s Child Welfare Services is making strides toward addressing what was, until recently, a backlog of nearly 200 open investigations into reports of child abuse and neglect.

This comes after a 2015 Attorney General investigation into Humboldt’s Department of Health and Human Services (CWS is a part of DHHS) as well as the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of reports of child abuse and neglect after receiving complaints that the two agencies “were not always properly receiving, responding to and investigating reports of child abuse and neglect.”  

Two Humboldt County Grand Jury reports — one in 2016 and another in 2017— also came about because of “complaints from superintendents of multiple school districts” and found similar results as the AG, that CWS and HCSO “were not adequately providing services to children.”

The nearly 200 cases of backlogged reports of child abuse and neglect grew as CWS officials were working on a past backlog of as many as 293 reports.

Humboldt County Child Welfare Services backlogged cases by year, graphed. Source Center for the Study of Social Policy.

But people at the department say that’s changing now, and have numbers to show for it. Some of the actions taken to address the backlog were court-ordered and others included the pairing of social workers in teams of two as well as the hiring of nearly 40 new employees in the past few months, Deputy Director Ivy Breen recently told the Outpost.

Breen figures that the new hires and changes in efficiency within CWS will only help to bring the number of backlogged cases down.

“We have been making pretty significant progress, and we are down to 63 [backlogged cases],” Breen said. “This is hard work and the teaming aspect has more benefits than just being more efficient and it seems to be paying off.”

According to a report from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, Humboldt’s CWS social workers are taking on about 29 to 37 investigations per month each — a rate that is nearly three times the recommended amount. Breen said that caseloads vary from worker based on their experience and the region they are working in. She also said that the new hires will help to distribute the workload more evenly once they are fully trained and on board.

With the hiring of new employees, CWS will have around 90 social workers to take on Humboldt’s higher-than-average child neglect and abuse reports. According to a CSSP report, from March 2018 to Feb 2019 there were a total of 3,217 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. Breen said that some of the reasons for the high number of incidents here in Humboldt County have to deal with poverty and substance abuse among others.

“A lot of these families that we got involved with have generational trauma,” Breen said. “Their parents may have been involved in the system. But the high allegation rate shows that we have a concerned community that cares and are looking out for our kids.”

CWS has historically dealt with short staffing. Jeri Scardina, also a deputy director for CWS, said the jobs the social workers are taking on is very demanding.

“It’s a high-stress job, obviously, and that is a phenomenon across the country,” Scardina said. “Staff are subjected to a lot of sadness and maybe even some trauma that they see in the families they work with, and that is difficult.”

In Feb. 2018, the AG’s office reached an agreement with DHHS and the Sheriff’s Office that included a number of corrective actions. One of the main actions included measures to address the backlog of 293 investigations within a year. In order for a case to be deemed as “backlogged,” it has to still be open after 40 days. Officials at CWS said there are a number of reasons why a case may stay open past that limit, and some of it has to do with Humboldt County’s size.

“We are a large, rural county and sometimes [social workers] are able to interview one child, but haven’t been able to have a face-to-face interview with a second child,” Breen said. “Or maybe they haven’t been able to interview all of the parents, and so for a variety of reasons investigations may go over the 40 days. This is something we’ve been very focused on for the last year and a half and we’re continuing to monitor that backlog on a frequent and regular basis.”